Immortalised by countless Hollywood set pieces, a central pillar of Chicago’s identity is the speakeasy. Tucked away in alleys, basements and backrooms, these underground establishments were the place to go for illicit booze and general debauchery during the Prohibition years (1920-33). When notorious Chicago gangster and bootlegger Al Capone was imprisoned in 1932 and Prohibition repealed the next year, the speakeasy lost its lustre among the city’s thrill seekers. More than 80 years later that spirit has been revitalised in the pursuit of hush-hush culinary delights.
This has led to the development of a blossoming underground dining scene where food lovers gather by word-of-mouth in unconventional locations to celebrate creative expression through food. These underground experiences aren’t advertised or posted online, and seldom will you know the location until an hour before the meal. The chefs and dining curators – the bootleggers of this modern-day speakeasy movement – work tirelessly in pursuit of the one-of-a-kind experience.
The unexpected thrill
The first rule of the club is that you do not talk about the club. For those familiar with Fight Club, you know that the second rule is you DO NOT talk abut the club – and likewise many of Chicago’s underground dining clubs have adopted these same first two guiding principals. To get to experience an innovative culinary session you have to be a member of the club or figure out how to place a reservation (which you probably heard about from a rule-breaking member). The experience is about keeping the location secret (with a disclaimer that it’s about 30 minutes travel from a selected point), and there’s an undeniable allure to guessing what the atmosphere will be: whether an elegant apartment overlooking Lincoln Park or the basement of Blind Pig Records in Avondale, the sense of mystery consistently delivers.
For those who prefer a less secretive means of dining, fear not. One of the speakeasy club pioneers, X-marx, came above ground to open their Logan Square restaurant Fat Rice. As the founders were quoted in the press, they wanted to open the experience up to wider audiences, and focus on perfecting recipes rather than one-off experiments; they were tired of creating “a pirate map to find us”.
Fashion and Food Pairings
While the fashionable crowds admire the latest trends and designs on the runway, some of Chicago’s best fashion-conscious underground chefs emulate current sartorial expressions by creating special dishes. The range of pairings can be intimate and intrinsic like Markus Ford’s Cuban cuisine for the launch of Benjamin Cottrell’s Nights In Havana collection, or the eventful night of artisanal greens with fresh herbs and wild salmon tartare prepared by Clandestino Supper Club to complement the Urban Identities collection by local designer Anke Loh. Chi City Fashion blogger Jena Gambaccini gave an insight into her underground experience when luxury fashion house BCBG Max Azria gave their runway presentation in between courses, followed by an inspiring conversation with creative director Lubov Azria.
Pop-Up Pop Art
Food is certainly an art form, but chef Jacob Demars takes it a step further by creating dishes that would look just as sensational as wall art as they do as a meal. If you can imagine Jackson Pollock and Ralph Steadman with the zeal and neon flare of street artist Inkie, then you’ll have a vague idea of what to expect from Demar’s exquisite presentation through his underground club, Open Circuit Dining. Here he combines his love of food and technique to create colourful dishes influenced by pop art and graffiti, for intimate 12-course pop-up dinners across the city several times a month. As the wondrous cooking talent has been quoted, “We want you to take a picture of the food, take it home and hang it on your wall.”
Other boundary-pushing elements within the city’s dining scene are creating immersive experiences directly from artists, for example local artist Lynn Basa, whose work has featured honeybees and honeycombs and bees’ wax. In response, the Clandestino Supper Club created an entire menu dedicated to honey, including crispy honey chicken with honey rhubarb pie as a dessert – at hand was an expert on bee keeping and the artist herself, who came along to join in a spirited conversation. This was just one of the delights from this club that regularly hosts artists and creates unique menus based on their work.
The succulent tastes of meaty bom boms or the “In Queso Emergency” quesadilla from the Yo Soy Club are rich in Tex-Mex styles, which founders Mikey Corono and Brian Riggenbach discuss in relation to their family traditions and contemporary fusions. Meanwhile for local chef Micky Kearns, the underground dining club he runs with his wife Tess is used to illustrate what they do ‘above ground’ – an all-natural catering company. Specialising in locally sourced ingredients and seasonal foods, the menu is designed to support local farmers and educate guests on the progressive elements they can add to their cooking habits at home. This ethos also laid the inspiring foundation for chef Giuseppe Catanzariti when he started his superb underground dining club Midnight Kitchen Projects.