Ever been to a supper club? If this were London a century ago, your response might have been: "Hey! I'm not that kind of girl!"
"Supper clubs" back then, you see, were what a Chicago Tribune article from October 20, 1899 defined as "where the pampered sons of fortune meet Bohemians upon a common level and engage in revelry—where fools are duped and criminals are bred." Places that advertised themselves as where "both ladies and gentlemen of the theatrical and kindred professions could find rest and recreation after their evening's exertions."
Ah. "Kindred professions." Got it.
Such clubs sprang up in the late 19th century to skirt a new law that set a closing time of 12:30 a.m. for London's pubs and restaurants. The law's intent was to clean up the city's debaucherous nightlife, but as the reporter writes: "It is a time-honored saying that a nation a cannot be made moral by Parliament." Clubs could stay open all night because they were technically private establishments—even if, in practice, their doormen declared everyone who knocked on the door an "honorary member."
The term had a much different meaning in the United States at the time, from what I can see in historical newspaper articles. In 1900, mentions of supper clubs were often included in the New York Times' page headlined: "Some Happenings in Good Society." But during the days of Prohibition, "supper club" seems to have become another name for a speakeasy.
These days, supper clubs are not only back in vogue, they're getting positively classy. I attended one a few weeks ago here in Washington, D.C. that commenced at the shockingly respectable hour of 6 p.m. and was over well before midnight. You had to buy a ticket in advance to find out the location, which turned out to be a chic art gallery.
There was plenty of wine, but no one got drunk enough to doze off in the corner or brandish a pair of Colt sixshooters, both of which happened at the supper clubs in that Chicago Tribune article (rowdy American tourists were to blame for the latter incident). Before the meal, we all sipped champagne and mingled shyly while admiring the artwork—a bit different from the old days, when pre-dinner entertainment consisted of inebriated dancing and competitive flirting to secure a dining companion.
The club I had discovered is called Artisa Kitchen, launched earlier this year by chef Bryon Brown. The name refers to the fact that he serves his meals in various art galleries around the city, but he says it also plays on the Spanish slang of his native East Harlem: "Artisa means a loud woman who gets what she wants, and that's who I would consider my kitchen to be if she was personified," he explains.
The club has no bricks-and-mortar location; Brown operates with a catering license, and rents gallery space a couple of times a month to create a temporary private restaurant. There are tables and waiters, but no menus—you must "submit your appetite to me," Brown says—and no bill at the end, since you've bought your $90 ticket in advance. The price tag always includes an aperitif, 12 courses and 4 wine pairings, plus an intangible added value: a socially acceptable way to talk to strangers.
"Food brings people together," commented a woman named Elizabeth, seated to my right. "We may not know anything else about each other, but we know we all have this common interest, so it's a starting point."
There were about 70 people at the event I attended, twice as many as Brown normally allows, because he had a celebrity co-host for the night: food writer Amanda Hesser. Each of the 12 courses Brown cooked was based on recipes from her newly released The Essential New York Times Cookbook, drawn from the paper's archives as far back as the 1860s. (I'll tell you more about that book and some of those specific recipes in another post.)
By the end of the night, I had conversed with at least eight strangers and exchanged business cards with a few. I learned about one woman's childhood memories of pig roasts in Romania, swapped stories about last year's "snowpocalypse" in D.C. and marveled at how different people's palates can be from one another. It was fun, and delicious, which is exactly what Brown intended.
“We’re trying to change the scheme of going out at night for dinner," Brown says. "At a restaurant, you usually sort of end up in a silo with the person you go with. We wanted to break down that silo, because engaging with other patrons can add to your experience and memories of the dinner."
Brown is still a fledgling chef, but he's clearly quite talented. He left his job as a college administrator in New Jersey when his wife got a job in D.C. about three years ago. Finding himself at a "crossroads in life, where I had the opportunity to do something new," he decided to pursue a lifelong interest in cooking. In lieu of formal culinary education, Brown worked for free in various restaurant kitchens—a practice called staging (pronounced "stodging") in the industry—including a stint at Jose Andres' Minibar, where he became intrigued with molecular gastronomy.
The supper club is a less risky way to establish his reputation than investing in his own restaurant, and since Brown also considers himself an artist (he paints, and plays the cello), he likes being able to offer galleries both the income from renting their space and "a new group of eyeballs" that might buy their work.
"We’re trying to change the landscape of eating here in D.C., and set the bar of what a supper club is, since that’s a term used very loosely. Our goal is to become known as the best supper club in America," Brown says. "It's a blessing to be able to create these moments that are memorable and happy in people's lives."
Well, that's certainly a higher calling than the supper clubs of yore, which were, as that Tribune article concluded: "all depraved."