A few weeks ago we wondered whether underground dinners had gone mainstream, after a profile in the Chicago Tribune. But leave it to Steve Dolinsky to do the dirty work and point out some of the inherent flaws in a recent experience at Rabbit Hole Chicago. For $85 a person, diners were served on a “rectangle of plywood set onto a few cinder blocks,” and everyone had to sit on cushions on the ground, including an amputee who had no idea that there would be no seats. Dolinsky notes that the relaxed atmosphere is part of the experience, and hopefully spurs the guests to let loose and have fun. Unfortunately, the actual food made Dolinsky grumpy.
The octopus salad was small, the pappardelle with fresh ricotta was “just plain boring,” the duck confit with fava beans was “a real yawner,” and the strawberry and ice cream dessert lacked finesse. In the end, he and his wife were not impressed:
I know I’m making more than waves out of this, but after you drop $170 plus $30 tip (is a tip really necessary if the one person serving is also the owner, and since there isn’t room to walk around the table, has to pass the water and wine bottles around so people fill glasses themselves while guests pass their plates up to the front?) you then realize that for $200 you could have had a killer meal at one of any number of great places - Naha, Topolo, Avec, Blackbird, North Pond, etc.
What’s odd is how bad we initially feel for Rabbit Hole Chicago. It’s like showing up for a dinner party and then trashing the food that comes out. Of course, we didn’t drop the $200. When Dolinsky asked guests why they didn’t speak up about the average food, most told him that “they didn’t want to make waves.”
But maybe underground dinners shouldn’t get a pass just based on etiquette. In the end, it’s almost noble what Dolinsky has done. By finally taking on the underground dinners, he shed light on why some restaurants are so expensive.
Mike Gebert from Sky Full of Bacon sums up the thought perfectly:
They use an underground atmosphere to cover the fact that they’re trying to serve a Blackbird-level meal at a Blackbird-level price without the costly support system of Blackbird.
Both Gebert and Dolinsky point out that they’ve had interesting underground dinners before, but that they aren’t perfect.
Has anyone actually tried one of these events, and would you go back?
Underground dinners proliferate, but not always worth it [Vocalo]
Underground to Who [Sky Full of Bacon]