The Secret Lives of Supper Clubs
Whisk & Ladle in Williamsburg, and the rise of private, invite-only dinner venues
by Jessica Ferri photography Tom Sands
Lucky New Yorkers have their choice of private dining, chef’s tables, prix fixe dinners and seasonal menus from some of the finest chefs in the world. But the newest trend in the culinary scene has nothing to do with restaurants. Instead, people are packing it in and heading to ultra-secret supper clubs run by amateur chefs and hosted in private apartments.
According to Anka Muhlstein, author of the historical French food treatise Balzac’s Omelette, the idea of the supper club originated in Balzac’s Paris, where in-demand restaurants created private dining to appease their customers, and in 1800s Parisian boardinghouses, where especially talented landladies could charge more for monthly rent if they offered a delicious private supper.
The email confirmation...reads as follows: “We ask that you not publish these directions anywhere online.”
Today’s supper clubs, though, are a little harder to find. Search for Whisk & Ladle (one of the city’s most successful clubs), and you’ll find a neglected website with an intimidating skull-and-crossbones logo. Like most supper clubs, the decade-old private collective is a labor of love, not a means of business. (Operating as a restaurant in a rental apartment isn’t exactly legal, hence the cloak and dagger approach.) The email confirmation you receive when you make a reservation reads as follows: “We ask that you not publish these directions anywhere online.” One wonders what would happen should the directions show up on someone’s Twitter feed.
All that said, the secretive nature of these supper clubs is quite certainly part of the allure. Keeping the location under wraps is part of your tacitly agreed upon duties as a guest, and how exciting that is—so conspiratorial! And the frequency of the dinners is completely up to the hosts, as their schedules wax and wane.
On a recent Saturday night, I arrived at an unassuming loft building in Williamsburg and enter a beautifully decorated apartment where there is a full bar and communal seating for 32 guests. The three people who live in the apartment are the managers of the Whisk & Ladle, hosting the dinners and cooking with the help of culinary students and friends. Most of the attendees had never attended a supper club before. Many were in from out of town. It was an international and distinguished group, including Shuwen Tan, who had come from London where she runs her own supper club, Two Hungry Girls; an international lawyer based in Brazil; an employee of Deutsche Bank; writers and editors of major magazines, and two female foreign correspondents who had become friends in Afghanistan.
Cocktails were mixed by a bartender from Booker and Dax for about an hour before dinner was served (a favorite sipper was the “Midsummer Night’s Dream” with rye and smoked cherries), giving us plenty of time to mingle and exchange business cards. As the night went on, it became apparent that the social opportunity was as important as the food.
“I think the element of meeting new people that you wouldn’t otherwise meet brings people here,” Danielle, one of the managers of Whisk & Ladle, explained during the dinner preparations. “If you’re at a restaurant, you usually don’t interact with the other diners. Here, you might come with one or two friends, but you’re sitting at a table with eight to 10 people. Also the meal is leisurely and sometimes people stay talking until two in the morning.”
None of the guests knew what to expect when it came to the menu. Whisk & Ladle served an English pea custard tart, a nice cut of grass-fed rib-eye steak with coconut grits followed by a salad of watercress, sorrel and fiddleheads. There were wine pairings with every dish and a Blue Bottle coffee float for dessert. The “suggested donation” for the evening was $65—not a bad deal by any New Yorker’s standards.
Julia, who runs The Dinner Bell, another supper club in Williamsburg, says hers is an attempt to duplicate a traditional family dinner. “I guess that makes me the grandma stirring the sauce on the stove, telling everyone to ‘sit and take a load off,’” she says. “I’ve found that diners who can relinquish a little control to get into the groove of a set menu and jump head-first into dining amongst new acquaintances really appreciate the experience.”
“Supper clubs, pop-up galleries, bedroom recording studios—a lot of impressive waves are being made outside the confines of the norm, and people are seemingly eager to partake.”
As for the hosts, it’s a great way for those who are passionate about food but perhaps a bit underemployed to showcase their talents. “It’s really exciting when aspects of our culture respond to a bad economy in an inventive and do-it-yourself manner,” Julia explains. “Supper clubs, pop-up galleries, bedroom recording studios—a lot of impressive waves are being made outside the confines of the norm, and people are seemingly eager to partake.”
With the help of an extra pour of wine and the good company, guests did seem at ease, enjoying the respite from the hustle and bustle of the usual social engagements in the city. There were whimsical touches like the “wish box” in the bathroom that prompted you to contribute your own. When it was time for the evening to draw to a close, the hosts approached the issue of the donation with humor, with each guest receiving a small envelope with a different message inside. One read: “When this building is transformed into a nursery school/coffee lounge with a tween guitarists training college in the basement, this evening will be nothing but a lovely memory.”