Come dine with me

TREND: The recession has brought about a new way of eating out that is turning tables

TREND:The recession has brought about a new way of eating out that is turning tables. Jean O'Learymeets up with "home restauranteur" Maria Reidy to find out what's cooking

IT’S 5AM ON a sleepy Saturday morning, and while most people are still firmly tucked up in bed, Maria Reidy is busily starching napkins. The 29-year-old has spent weeks transforming the living room of her Dublin apartment into a “secret restaurant” where she will cook for 24 paying guests – some friends, some strangers – and slumber has not featured prominently on her long to-do list.

“I didn’t get to bed until 1am, but I just lay there thinking, ‘I’ve got so much to do, I’ve got to get up’. So I was awake first thing, putting ribbons on my menu cards.

“I’ve thought about nothing else for the past few weeks. A couple of days ago, I had this dream that there were all these hungry people at the door waiting to come in and eat, but I’d forgotten to buy any food for them. It was awful.” Reidy was inspired to open up her home to the hungry public after a trip to The Underground Restaurant in London, one of a number of spontaneous eateries that have sprung up in private homes in the city.

“I’d read about it online and when I visited it I just thought, ‘wow’,” Reidy says. “The food was so special – and how many restaurants do you come across where you can go into the kitchen and chat to the person who cooks your meal? It’s an amazing concept and I thought I had to try it out, too.

“I sent an e-mail to friends and said ‘tell everyone you know, send it on to workmates, tell people down the road’. So there are people coming from all over the country that I’ve never met before.”

For €35, Reidy’s guests will have a four-course meal with fresh, locally sourced ingredients, and profits are going to the ISPCC.

“Most of my friends think I’m cracked for doing it,” Reidy laughs. “I’m a bit theatrical, and I’m really interested in food and doing something different with it, so I suppose this is just an extension of that.”

There isn’t a dog-eared TV guide or a stray house slipper in sight in Reidy’s living room, which she has wizarded into a “Polka Dot Parlour” for the evening, complete with a hand-made spotted apron for the hostess, mini red and white milk pails for the baby potatoes, and chocolate pots served up in adorable vintage tea cups.

With a day job as an events manager, Reidy, originally from Kilmihil in west Clare, clearly has planning panache – and many useful contacts for borrowing tables and chairs. But she has also been taking tips from Ms Marmite Lover, who runs The Underground Restaurant in London.

Ms Marmite Lover, or Ms ML for short, has been operating her incredibly popular weekly restaurant since February, and keeping foodie fans informed of her progress through a regular online blog,

Helped with waitressing by her teenage daughter (“she’d never admit it, but I think she quite enjoys it”), Ms ML has been building up a large clientele. On a recent evening she managed to cram 42 diners into her apartment: “I had to seat some of them in the shed that night,” she says. A rock photographer by trade, Ms ML is reluctant to reveal too much about her identity – secret restaurants are, of course, technically illegal. “The illicit element of home restaurants is actually quite stressful for me. It’s exciting for the people who are coming, but for me it’s quite gut-wrenching. I haven’t had any run-ins yet, so fingers crossed . . .”

Ms ML's involvement with the secret restaurant movement began following a trip to some of Cuba's traditional family-run paladaresrestaurants back in 2000.

“I was very impressed by them. I just thought, why invest lots of money and take all that risk of opening up a restaurant when you can try it yourself at home?”

Ms ML is currently compiling a book about home restaurants, gathering her research from different parts of the world. “There are a lot in South America and some dotting up in Europe, too. There are about 10 in London at the moment, and the prices range from about £15 to £100.”

Could the trend take off in Ireland? “Totally. Irish people are incredibly sociable and I think they’d love it.

“It’s quite an urban phenomenon – it’s about intimacy and connecting with other people and creating a sense of community. I know a lot of friendships and even relationships have started from my home restaurant.”

Back in Ballsbridge, and Reidy’s Polka Dot Parlour evening is in full swing. Guests have devoured her antipasti platter, savoured the fresh sea bream and demolished the home-made olive and pesto bread rolls. The hostess and her waitress for the evening, friend Maggie, have received a standing ovation for all their hard work.

As an after-dinner surprise, Cork singer-songwriter Aaron Dillon steps up from a table and entertains the guests with a 30-minute set.

“It’s a bit different to the venues I’m used to playing,” he says. “And I came along expecting noodles or waffles on a gas stove, but this is amazing. It’s completely unique.”

Two days later, and Reidy is still on a high – despite clearing up until 4am and tackling a pile of dishes of Everest proportions.

“My hands are in ribbons from the washing up, they’re just in pieces. I don’t even recognise them. I’ve so many bruises and cuts and my back is sore. It’s tough work, but I loved every minute of it. I really wanted people to enjoy themselves and have a really good time, and people genuinely did. I still can’t believe it’s over now and I’m back to real life. I couldn’t sleep I was so exhilarated after it.”

Would she make it a regular event? “Watch this space. I wouldn’t rule it out. I got a call from one of the girls who took her menu into the office to tell people about it, and apparently there’s lots of demand to do another one.

“Now there’s the expectation, my friends want to know what I’m going to do next. I don’t know what I can do to top this, but it might be worth a try.”