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Suppertime Social: Why Staying in is the New Going Out For London’s Food Lovers

by CB Cowling

posted on February 07, 2019

Photo Courtesy: Gooce Supper Club

Nowhere has embraced the phenomenon of the supper club quite as enthusiastically as London. The resurgence of the intimate dinner-party-style event started to take hold in the capital around 10 years ago, but unlike other food trends — it turns out no one actually wants to eat rainbow food — the experience has grown to become an established pillar of the city’s dining scene.

On any given night you can log onto sites like EatWith and DesignMyNight to find hundreds of options, from the wildly-creative to those more comforting and wholesome. At the forefront are quirky pop-ups held in stunningly-incongruous settings. Feeling adventurous? There’s a Colombian-inspired menu served in an abandoned tube train, or a five-course Roman Bacchanalia-themed feast hosted in an underground warehouse. The Literary Hour’s secret dining club even offers menus and backdrops inspired by beloved books, with events based around the works of Roald Dahl, C.S. Lewis, and Beatrix Potter.

An Around-the-World-in-80-Days-themed dinner held by The Literary Hour. (Photo Courtesy: Facebook user The Literary Hour)

But for every one of these high-concept, immersive dining experiences, there’s also an equal number of successful at-home supper clubs — small events run by amateur food lovers, aspiring chefs, and ex-restaurateurs. In the cozy confines of their dining rooms or back gardens, tucked away in terraced houses, community kitchens, and basement flats, talented cooks are whipping up set menus filled with exciting, playful, and diverse dishes.

Choose a night in instead of out on the town, and you’ll get to venture into a new area of the city, meet a broad cross-section of its residents, and sample a much-more-affordable tasting menu than you’d find at a high-end restaurant. Diners bring their own bottle of wine or two, and most events run from £30 to £50 each for five courses. For Londoners it’s a way to meet neighbors and make new friends, while for visitors it’s a chance to step into the city and engage with locals. The overall experience is like a memorable dinner party hosted by friends, except these friends are much better cooks, and you don’t have to help with the washing up afterward. And like dining at someone’s home, if you’re lucky there might even be a friendly dog to pet.

Dinners at Gooce Supper Club are like a meal at the home of your most gracious friend. Better yet, you don't have to offer to do the dishes. (Photo Courtesy: Gooce Supper Club)

“Supper clubs breed a relaxed and fun atmosphere . . . it feels as though it’s more of an ‘evening out’ than a restaurant.”

Gabi and Luce are long-time housemates who started Gooce Supper Club last year out of their pretty terraced house in Tooting. Food has always been a big part of both their lives, with backgrounds that include cooking school, wine training, and food blogging. Hosting a supper club felt like a natural progression that was manageable alongside their full-time jobs. With an eye to making dating in the city a more enjoyable experience, the dinners cater to singles in their twenties and thirties with Bumble burnout: Londoners ready to give online dating a pass and meet people the old-fashioned way.

“Dinner parties are a classic form of meeting people and dating, however they’ve fallen to the wayside recently with the increase in dating apps. We wanted to bring this dating experience back.”

Together the talented twenty-somethings prepare and serve a five course meal, while the small group of carefully-matched guests mingle over slow-roasted lamb, stuffed aubergine rolls, and watercress and orange blossom salad. Some diners bring friends, others come alone, but there’s no awkward silences or stale chit chat here: everyone is too busy savoring rhubarb martinis and trading stories over the candlelit communal table and upbeat playlist.

Supper clubs can be an excellent way to sample regional cuisine, like this dish of pork belly, apples, and potato purée served at Romanian Supper Club. (Photo Courtesy: Andra Constantinescu / @mintandrosemary)

London’s supper club scene is also home to some of the most authentic regional cooking in the capital, broadening the tastes and experiences of adventurous diners. On any given night you might find a choice of Peruvian, Persian, Filipino, Nordic, or Somali cuisine on offer. Traditional to experimental, conceptual to comfort food, it’s all served up with pride and care in a convivial and festive setting that’s worlds away from a trendy restaurant.

“For me, supper clubs are a great opportunity to meet new people and try foods that I wouldn’t normally find in a restaurant. I love the social aspect, and the connections made around a plate of food.”

A trained chef and food writer, Andra Constantinescu showcases her cultural and gastronomic heritage at her Romanian Supper Club in Battersea. The bespoke tasting menu is a parade of Romanian classics and family recipes, with a strong emphasis on simple, seasonal ingredients. Everything tells a story and has a personal meaning, with offerings of traditional dishes like varza a la Cluj, a local delicacy of minced pork, rice, and fermented cabbage, and papanasi, cottage cheese doughnuts with sour cream and marmalade.

“It’s a natural and simple human desire to share food around the table.”

Over in Hackney, chef and author Uyen Luu gets to the heart of why the supper club is such an appealing premise. Uyen grew up in east London and started cooking traditional Vietnamese dishes to help her feel connected to her family and roots. Now her sell-out dinners have helped put Vietnamese cuisine on the city’s radar, and her events attract everyone from tourists to celebrity chefs. Set in her light-filled studio, each menu includes carefully-sourced and lovingly-crafted dishes like Saigon rolls with pork belly, cilantro, and cockscombe (a Vietnamese herb similar to lemon balm), and tapioca prawn dumplings with lime chilli sauce. There’s a celebratory feel to the diners that crowd around her table, inspired by the relaxed atmosphere and the joys of culinary discovery.

“By the end of the evening, people make new friends and the noise levels go up and up . . . One of the most memorable events was with members of Michael Bublé’s band who came to eat, they brought their instruments, I had a piano, and people sang and played their hearts out. We shared all the food together. People were in their element, we created a hub of happiness, a peak of enjoyment, hugging life with our smiles and full bellies."

Intimate and convivial, these events are a boon for busy Londoners seeking expansion of their social circles. (Photo Courtesy: Gooce Supper Club)

There’s another explanation for the supper club’s steady rise, one that’s less tied to food trends and novelty, and more indicative of a craving for connection. It’s always harder to make friends as an adult, and while technology brings us seemingly closer and closer, young people talk of feeling increasingly isolated. In a city where urban loneliness is being treated as a public health crisis, supper clubs provide something more than simply eating out.

Welcomed into someone’s home and seated at a table of strangers, it’s easier to open up, gain insight, and find unexpected things in common with people you might never have crossed paths with otherwise. The act of breaking bread amongst friends, old or brand-new, is a basic human need that we seem to be drifting further away from in modern life. The enduring popularity of London’s supper clubs shows just how much we still value these moments, and just how much we need them.

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