Underground diners were originally conceived as the speakeasy’s culinary cousin. Basing operations in their home kitchens and dining rooms, chefs had the freedom to experiment with ingredients and techniques prohibited in the fast-paced, budget conscious environment of professional kitchens. Despite the secrecy surrounding most underground diners that began in the early 2000s, they were more a refuge from economic law than criminal law.
“I've always wanted to be able to push the envelope,” says Nick Marckwald, chef at Hen of the Woods
. “First and foremost it’s about experimentation, innovation and seeing where we can go.”
Aug. 13 of last year marked Hen of the Woods
' first episode. Marckwald was nervous. “It was my first rodeo in about two years,” he says. He left the restaurant industry in 2010 to help with his family’s property management business. In the time since, he’s gotten the itch to return to his real passion: food.
Marckwald decided that an underground diner would be the perfect way to ease back into the restaurant industry. It required little startup expense and would allow him to build the audience necessary to launch his own enterprise with confidence. With the help of his wife, Kimberly, who manages service, Hen of the Woods was born.
Every month, Marckwald hosts a dinner in his Milford home. The dining room table, which he built himself, seats 10 guests. Most of them have never met before. This is a crucial part of the experience, he says. “When people go outside the normal restaurant experience, it changes their dining perception.”
Perception, in many ways, fuels the underground diner movement. Servers, if they are present at all, are usually friends or family members of the chef. Marckwald does eight courses, each paired with different wines, but the atmosphere is relaxed.
“It’s a fun way to dine because you don’t have decisions and get to just sit back and experience it,” says Kevin Hart, Winecraft representative. He’s been watching the underground dining movement for years, and worked with Marckwald to supply and explain the wines at his January dinner.
The dining experience is further enhanced by the presence of a chef-guide. Throughout the three-hour meal, Marckwald explains the composition and inspiration for each dish as it arrives at the table. The ingredients may be unusual—a Caesar salad with Patagonia toothfish, or pork loin served with the diner’s namesake, the Hen of the Woods mushroom—but Marckwald keeps it unpretentious.
“People want a connection with their food, to be a part of the experience,” says Bill Draznik, longtime friend of Marckwald and supporter of his underground diner. Marckwald completes that connection.
“He’s doing very elevated food,” says Nick Wayne, joint owner of A Tavola
and regular at Marckwald’s dinners. “Beyond Orchid's, it’s hard to find this sort of cuisine.”
Quality, locally-sourced ingredients and diligent preparation are hallmarks of the underground diner. “I wouldn’t have ever done this if I couldn’t get my hands on the best ingredients,” Marckwald says. “It’s so much about the people who grow, raise and catch what goes into these meals.”
The sentiment is echoed in Ryan Santos’s Arts & Lettuce
, another Cincinnati underground diner now on its second year (and highlighted in Soapbox
). Santos and Marckwald both make it a point to build relationships with local farmers. Some even grow unique ingredients just for Santos.
“There’s simply no way to get those ingredients without having the relationships,” he says.
What local farmers have available and in peak season dictates the menu down to the minutest elements. Marckwald’s “farm-to-table” philosophy keeps him local even “with a piece of minced shallot that goes into a sauce and gets strained out.”
“It’s an exciting experience to go in and not know what you’re going to get, but knowing it’s going to be excellent,” Wayne says. He sees an upward trend in the amount of adventure people are willing to accept in their meals. For $125 per person, Hen of the Woods' guests commit to a dinner they know nothing about at a table with complete strangers. Still, tickets sell out in about 48 hours.
“Most people go into a restaurant with an idea of what they’ll find on the menu and what they’ll order," Marckwald says. "That doesn’t fit with what we’re trying to do here."
Although the existence of the diners themselves may not be a closely guarded secret, the menus still are. This is true of all underground diners in Cincinnati. Sandy Kesner and Sasha Hart started It’s A Secret
in July 2009 with this in mind. With the longest-running underground diner in Cincinnati, they’ve seen increasing popularity for alternative fine dining experiences. In 2011, the growing demand caused them to make their dinners monthly instead of quarterly.
“The whole idea behind what we do is that the food brings people together,” Hart says. Tired of being obliged to battle noisy, bustling dining rooms to get good food, Hart and Kesner began their underground diner as a way to making dining more social.
It’s A Secret dinners parallel the etiquette and ceremony of fine dining while pacing the courses to create a relaxed, organic atmosphere. Like Hen of the Woods and Arts & Lettuce, the experience is what keeps people coming. The secret menu, the attention to detail and locality, the communal tables and the residential setting are the notes these chefs tune to generate that experience.
“People come for the food and the communal experience,” Santos says. True to the sentiment that food brings people together, the guests tend to run the broadest of social spectrums. At any of the dinners there could be a bartender in his 20s seated beside a lawyer in her 60s.
“Food is the catalyst,” Hart says, “and great conversation follows.”
The average guest is someone who likes to know what they’re eating, where it’s from, and to share that experience, Marckwald says. The chefs are likewise people who are passionate about providing that experience.
“Guests are people just looking for an escape from the norm,” he says. “Here you’re never going to get the same dish twice.”
That the secret is out about underground dining is anything but harmful to its cause. In fact, Marckwald, Santos, Kesner and Hart all see the trend continuing and growing as people in Cincinnati broaden their search for dining experiences.
“In some ways, we’re the antithesis of the traditional restaurant,” Kesner says. “The portions, the atmosphere, the pace—all to be able to focus on and communicate about food.”
In the end, the idea is to dispense with the formalities—the maitre d’, fleets of servers, wine lists, dinner jackets—so that people can dine in a more relaxed environment, Santos says. Fine dining restaurants will always have their place in the city, but underground diners are an outlet for enthusiastic foodies to commune.
“The reason I go is to be around passionate people,” Hart says. “It’s contagious.”
Andrew Welsh is an alum of the University of Cincinnati, where he studied Journalism and Creative Writing. He has spent years cooking and working in restaurants. This is his first story for Soapbox.
Photography by Scott Beseler
Nick Marckwald portrait
Hen of the Woods plating (photo byNick Wayne)
Nick Marckwald at his dining table
Ryan Santos portrait
Grilled milk with black cardamom, euchalyptus, hazelnut and salted meringue. On Brush Factory natural slate plates.
(Also masthead ingredients)
Sandy Kesner and Sasha Hart