Guess who's coming to dinner: the rise of the secret supper club


Supper clubs have taken off in the recession – so what’s it like sharing a dinner table with a bunch of strangers?

I AM ON THE doorstep of a house in central Belfast, about to enter a stranger’s home to take part in the dining experience du jour, a secret supper club.

Peering through the open window into the candlelit dining area, I see a group of people sitting at a long table chatting, drinking wine and having a merry old time. It all looks so cosy.

My friend and I put on our bravest faces and venture inside, not knowing quite what to expect. The nervousness in the room is palpable, but soon we nine diners realise we’re in this together and start mingling.

Secret supper clubs, which are becoming increasingly popular in London and the US, can be defined as underground home bistros. People with an interest in fine food invite you into their home or a random venue via a social networking site or through word of mouth. Jenny O’Neill and Sarah Allen, from Belfast, are two such people. O’Neill is in her late 30s and splits her time between lecturing in architecture at the University of Ulster, and in graphics and web design at Belfast Metropolitan College. Allen, from South Carolina, is in her late-20s, and recently graduated from Queen’s University with an MA in cognition and culture.

They set up Plot 15 Supper Club (named after their allotment at Blythefield) two months ago, and have had four successful nights to date.

They describe supper clubs as an “alternative dining scene, with up to 12 guests enjoying the best local, seasonal food in a sociable, relaxed environment – our home. All guests eat at one large table, providing a great setting for meeting new people.”

Both women know their way around a kitchen and have experience in the catering business but their supper club isn’t about fancy food.

“It’s more about putting energy and money back into the local economy. I think it’s important to support your own economy,” says Allen. “Our menus contain goods in season.” They aim to provide organic fruit and vegetables from their allotment for upcoming supper clubs.

When O’Neill and Allen emerge from the kitchen they are wearing matching “Plot 15 Supper Club” aprons. Allen’s mum got them made up and sent them over from the US.

Our waitress for the evening is Lauren Swiney, a PhD student at Queen’s, who offers quails’ eggs dipped in cumin seeds and sea salt.

The varied professions of our fellow diners reads like the cast of a screwball Woody Allen comedy. To my left sit Melanie Carmicheal (37), a costume designer from Antrim; Caroline Dillion (35), an interior designer and dressmaker from Derry; Marie Quiery, a psychotherapist and consultant in organisational development from Belfast; Brazilian Dr Paulo Sousa, who lectures in cognitive anthropology at Queen’s; and Adar Eisenbruch, a 23-year-old New Yorker who is studying anthropology at Queen’s.

Michael Steele, a 22-year-old accountancy student, and Heather Smith (21), a trainee pharmacist, found out about the supper club on Facebook.

“I came across the Plot 15 Supper Club after looking at the Secret Belfast page, which is where people share their knowledge of underground events in Belfast,” says Steele.

The Plot 15 women began the year researching and advertising this idea on Facebook and within 24-hours were fully booked for their first club in January.

Since then, mentions on the internet and word-of-mouth reviews have seen the women trying to keep up with demand.

“People have raved about it to friends. We’ve even had people travel all the way from Dublin. It’s the social aspect that attracts people. It has really captured people’s imaginations,” says O’Neill.

In the current economic climate, supper clubs also represent value for money. Most clubs recommend a donation of £15-£20.

“You just can’t get a three-course meal in Belfast for £20,” says Allen.

Once we master the tricky task of deshelling the quail eggs, we agree they are delectable. Then it’s on to our starter of spicy sweet potato soup, topped with crispy Jerusalem artichoke shavings (giving it a subtle sweetness), served with home-made bread.

Guests bring their own alcohol, and glasses clink and bottles open as we await our main course (there’s a basket in the corner bulging with wine in case you run out). Ambient music streams in the background and soon the conversation is flowing.

The roasted whole mackerel in citrus and coriander sauce is a feast for the eyes. The fish dominates the plate and is accompanied by a generous serving of dahl and rice. The vegetarians have saag paneer with basmati rice and dhal.

The conversation turns to cognitive therapy, a subject Paulo, Adar and Marie have considerable knowledge of, while the rest of us scratch our heads.

In the revelations section of the night, New Yorker Adar tells us he dabbled in stand-up comedy back in the US, Paulo tells us he is a published poet, Melanie says she has acted in some Irish films and Sarah confides that she is a newly qualified hypnotist.

Dessert is served. It is a moreish Tunisian orange and almond cake served with a tangy Greek yoghurt, followed by coffee and more wine.

Would you come again, I ask my fellow diners? “Definitely. It was a great way of socialising and just a really interesting night,” Steele tells me.

“It’s been a memorable night,” says Quiery.

I agree. In usual social settings, such as nightclubs or pubs, you could never hope to learn and share so much with strangers over an evening. It throws you out of your comfort zone and allows for engaging conversations with people you wouldn’t normally mix with, covering subjects you may not usually encounter.

And as for the food, it was divine.

The next Plot 15 Supper Club will take place on April 9th,,