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Invitations Are Better Than Reservations

The world's best dining clubs give chefs a chance to experiment and diners a taste of true exclusivity.

Joining a secret dining club isn’t like getting a reservation at a Michelin-starred restaurant. The former requires connections – many require referrals or testimonials – while the latter merely requires patience (or an expertly palmed Benjamin). Like most businesses that straddle the thin line between legal and illegal, gastronomic guilds operate under the theory that there’s no such thing as good publicity and view outsiders with suspicion. Still, it’s often worth the effort to get past the screeners and through the doors. The world’s best dining clubs encourage accomplished chefs to experiment and pamper their members with performances and experiences as well as memorable tastes. Here are the ones you want to join.

Dinner Lab
Washington, D.C., Nashville, Chicago, Austin, Miami, Los Angeles, New York

Photo Courtesy of Dinner Lab


The masterminds behind this members-only dining club modeled it after a test-kitchen, helmed by up-and-coming chefs who hone their talents whipping out experimental five-course meals (think: coriander and sumac crusted venison, Wuail eggs in cocotte with crawfish bisque). Most cities host three $40-$90 dinners a week, each lasting about three hours with booze and tips included. Location details are released a day or so in advance, and run the gamut from abandoned churches in New Orleans to Brooklyn breweries. Membership fees typically range from $100 to $200, making this an affordable option for city dwellers. The only real drawback is that you can’t bring a date. Instead, bring your critic’s attitude. Feedback is welcomed by the chefs eager to up their game.

Wolvesden
Los Angeles

Photo Courtesy of Wolvesden / Flickr.com


Culinary wunderkind Craig Thorton has cooking chops and a memorable resume -  he worked under Thomas Keller at Bouchon in Vegas and as Nicholas Cage’s private chef. But the 32-year-old Californian became a foodie legend with the opening of Wolvesden in 2010. Known for his epic, 13-course meals, which feature rare delicacies like rabbit tare crème fraiche and pickled crabapple, Thorton is a one-man show in the kitchen, doing all of the sourcing, prepping, and cooking himself. That’s presumably why his sporadic pop-up dinners are nearly impossible to get into. Those who want to attend need to fill out an application, offer up their Twitter handle and get creative with completing a blank text box (keep it short, and don’t be too clever). If you make the list, you’ll get the relevant details via email, and, in return for the meal, you’ll be asked to make a donation to cover the expenses. Not a bad deal.

A Razor, A Shiny Knife
New York

Photo Courtesy of A Razor, A Shiny Knife


Billing itself as a “theatrical culinary experience,” this dining club earned itself a cultish following in the late aughts. We credit fans’ fervor to that one time they served caviar, foie gras and filet mignon on a crowded L train, but - hijinks aside - these guys know how to cook. The chefs have been known to roast an entire cow and dunk white truffles in liquid nitrogen, but the gimmickry is always in service of taste. Expect a highly communal evening, as “volunteers” (a.k.a. diners) are asked to pitch in with plating, serving and even washing the dishes. To nab an invite, fill out this form and think hard on skills and hidden talents you’ll bring to the table. It’s an application, not a reservation. 

Takazawa
Tokyo

Photo Courtesy of Takazawa


If communal suppers are not your thing, consider Takazawa the extreme opposite. Organized by master chef and founder Yoshiaki Takazawa, his near-private dinners only feature a handful of tables with a max seating of ten people, in an unmarked location in the Akasaka neighborhood of Japan (you’ll have to look for an engraved door handle to know you’re in the right spot). The food is nothing short of perfection (foie gras crème brulee, smoked Ezo venison, curry ice cream) and no two menus are exactly alike. After submitting a request for a seat, expect to wait at least six months, during which time you can buy a plane ticket.

Sunday Dinner Club
Chicago

Photo Courtesy of Sunday Dinner Club


This underground Chi-town favorite is organized like a last-minute dinner party—to get invited you need to know someone who’s already on the mailing list, or have a decently solid friend-of-a-friend refer you. The reason? Founders Josh Kulp and Christine Cikowski like to keep the atmosphere convivial. Guests must also share a deep appreciation for farm-to-table fare, BYOB-style dining, and honey butter fried chicken (a signature dish of this duo, and the name of their offshoot restaurant). Once you’re in this referral-only club, you’ll be sent event details and locations two weeks in advance of events. Dinners take place five to ten times a year at $45 to $85 a pop. 

Lazy Bear
San Francisco

Photo Courtesy of Lazy Bear


In August, this much-buzzed-about SF food institution, started up by David Barzelay in 2009, will officially go public and open a legitimate restaurant. Despite the new brick and mortar, the process to get in will remain more or less the same. Eager diners will have to join a mailing list then enter a lottery system and hope to get a table on a convenient day. Barzelay’s unique take on food comes through in his well-thought-out menus; his last underground event featured sturgeon with fumet, spiced oil and wax beans along with smoked rib-eye served with tomatoes, pickles and sungold capers. For details on exactly how and when you can get into Barzelay’s new space, do what everyone in Hayes Valley does and keep hitting refresh on his blog.

Ete
Oslo, Norway

Photo Courtesy of Ete


Scandinavia seems to be at the apex of cool these days, which makes Ete cooler still. The latest arrival on the thriving Nordic underground food scene, Ete offers meals made by a team of “enthusiastic chefs and experienced amateurs” with an emphasis on local ingredients and innovative techniques (think Fine de Claire Oysters, halibut ceviche, and sour-milk panna cotta). Gatherings take place anywhere—bunkers, sacred chapels, the National Gallery—and are only announced to those on their mailing list. If granted entry, expect to ete ridiculously good food in the company of the ridiculously good-looking people. Dress well.

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