In other countries, secret restaurants have flourished for years: In Cuba, mom-and-pop paladares are an alternative to state-run eateries; in Hong Kong, si fang cai offer elaborate home-cooked meals. Recently the phenomenon has taken off in America, with under-the-radar establishments popping up in San Francisco, Seattle, New York, and Boston. Operated out of people’s homes, by enthusiasts with no professional cooking experience or by chefs moonlighting from their regular gigs, these secret restaurants aren’t terribly secret. A bit of creative googling will lead you quickly to outposts like Underground Inc. in Des Moines, Iowa, or Shady’s Cafe in Penland, North Carolina. Still, they form a rapidly expanding and important ad hoc culinary underground … In the same way that punk and indie rock emerged as a response to the corporate-driven homogenization of popular music in the 1980s, secret restaurants prefer the unique to the ubiquitous, the rough edges of the handmade over the polish of the commercial. Speakeasies helmed by untrained, self-taught chefs celebrate a democratic D.I.Y. ethic espousing the idea that anyone can cook. The fare being served is hardly cutting-edge—ingredients like liquid nitrogen and agar remain the province of truly high-end restaurants; instead, the emphasis tends to be on authenticity and bold, hearty flavors.
For more on the underground urban dining scene, check out The Ghetto Gourmet and their “culinary comrades.” Of course, after any social movement gets press from the likes of Time Magazine and The Wall Street Journal we shouldn’t be surprised by claims that subculture dining has now gone mainstream.
A quick search of the internets didn’t yield any under- or above-ground groups in Canada, but we do have a strong enough liquor culture that “boozecan” is part of the national English lexicon. Started out east as part of the 80s punk scene, boozecans were set up in people’s houses and other places in order to sell and consume alcohol off-hours. Slowly moving west, these makeshift or DIY bars still appear (and get busted) across the country, although many are being replaced with “cocainecans” controlled by organised crime.