Most people think that restaurants only prepare the specific items that are listed on their menus. While this may be true for some restaurants, the fact is many restaurants, even fast food restaurants, have items available that are characterized as secret or hidden (and sometimes bizarre). This is something that has been going on for decades, with most of these secret menu items only coming to light by word of mouth.
The trend of the past decade or so has been restaurants, not just menus, that are secret, hidden, or otherwise non-conventional. These restaurants may be off the beaten path, non-conformist, or simply pop up and then disappear. In fact, pop-up restaurants are a huge trend in many regions. They have actually been around longer in the United States and even Cuba, but have taken hold in popular culture in Britain and in Australia after the turn of this century.
The increase in popularity may be in part due to the increase in the number of people owning smartphones and utilizing social media. The movement of these pop-up restaurants can be tracked on Facebook, Twitter, and on other social media. Diners can make reservations if it is that type of restaurant; it may be a favorite food truck that acts as pop up eatery as well. There are even apps that have been made specifically for this purpose (in fact, there are tons of great food apps these days).
Hidden or secret restaurants and bars may differ a bit from a pop up in that they may be only known by word of mouth, or even by invitation or membership of sorts. These restaurants could be located in a nook or cranny and out of the limelight of popular restaurant or shopping districts, they could be in the house of a stranger who is also the chef of the event, or they could be hidden in plain sight.
The following are some examples of unique dining experiences, pop-ups, and other hidden and secret restaurants, bars, and venues in the United Kingdom and the United States.
First is an experimental pop-up dining experience dreamed up by Jones & Sons and the most popular online poker venue PokerStars. Poker players are always forced to balance when to eat and when to play poker, especially in live events. As a result, the world’s first pay-by-poker restaurant called the All-In Kitchen was born, uniting gourmet food with the sport of poker. The launch of this collaboration tied in with the start of the 2015 UK & Ireland Poker Tour (UKIPT).
The pop up was characterized as a pay-by-poker restaurant, which means players with over 10,000 chips at the end of their mini poker session received dinner for free, while players with 5,000 to 10,000 chips only paid £5 for the meal. For those players not so fortunate, ending play with 5,000 and fewer chips, paid £10 for dinner.
Normally costing £50 per head for this three course plus a cocktail dinner means the nominal £10 cost for the players with no poker face was a great deal. The poker format was low stakes and it was also free to book a table and to play the game, with each player being given 10,000 chips to start. The result over three hands was the deciding factor of how much each player paid for dinner; what an outstanding way to enjoy going out to eat. Check out what Stapes, poker commentator and comedian, had to say about this poker/restaurant experiment:
While the All-In Kitchen is likely one of the most unique examples of a pop-up restaurant, these eateries are some of the best secret or hidden restaurants in London. They are low-key restaurants that provide laid back dining experiences that are away from popular tourist spots and without the battle to eat at the no-booking restaurants. These hidden or secret restaurants are without pretension, away from the limelight, and devoid of annoying crowds:
First is Sirena’s in Vauxhall. Hidden away in the Vauxhall office block is the basement dwelling Italian restaurant. The famous Royal Doulton pottery used to reside at this location, which has been renamed the Southbank House. The staircase down to this eccentric hidden gem is lined with posters of the coast of Amalfi. Decked with gingham, the dining room is filled with lively chatter and the smell of garlic draws in the senses.
While the menu and the decor seem to be from the early 1970s era, Sirena’s actually opened in 1991. Some of the features of the menu include pollo alla Milanese, melanzane parmigiana, and even a prawn cocktail. Workers from the surrounding office block surely appreciate the takeaway sandwich counter, but also enjoy the inexpensive pizza, the mouth-watering pasta, and even the lively wait staff.
Another hidden gem is the Platform in Hackney. The hive of artsy activity in this area has transformed the office block from what used to be a community college, council offices, and a squat. Known as the Netil House, the current residents are tattoo artists, illustrators, Pilates instructors, and even acrobats: not the typical office workers.
The Platform is accessed by way of a secret doorway that is located down a less than attractive alleyway. However, one inside this atypical cafeteria overlooks the East London skyline through a wall of windows. Looking out, the Shard and the Gherkin are to the right and the Canary Wharf is to the left. The scene becomes vaguely futuristic when at eye level trains chug by. The menu of this imaginative restaurant changes daily and is quite affordable. Hipsters of the locale gather for ping-pong tournaments, film nights, and sing-a-longs as the cafe transitions to a bar after dark.
The Whirled Cinema
The Whirled Cinema in Brixton is a unique and well-hidden venue that, as its namesake represents, is a secret cinema, but with cocktails, pizza, and posh popcorn. This is a member’s access only, but a weekly membership can be purchased on the night of attendance that is less expensive than a cinema ticket in the West End. There is no box office, but the small bar offers just what is needed to enjoy the sixty seat screening room with a home cinema feeling.
The key to enjoying the Whirled Cinema is finding it. The secret cinema is a favorite of the locals, but it is hidden down a grungy alleyway with the entrance smartly disguised within a railway arch. Located between a Pentecostal church and a boxing gym, this is the quintessential hidden evening destination.
Las Vegas, Nevada:
One of the latest experiments by chef Jose Andres is é. This chef is known for feats of theatrical dining and molecular gastronomy. The restaurant itself, é, is located within another restaurant, the tapas bar Jaleo, in a hidden private room. There is no sign or phone number for é. Lucky attendees can expect a fifteen to twenty-three course meal along with a Willy Wonka-style golden ticket that they get upon securing a reservation. Each dish showcases both classic and new ingredients presented in a modern, avant-garde style. People will have the feeling of surprise and discovery when dining at é, as they experience food that is fascinating and delicious.
Atlantic City, New Jersey:
To be lucky enough to get a seat at one of the twelve tables of Chef Vola’s, it seems like you need to be family. Though this may not be the case in reality, it is the mystique surrounding the Italian eatery that gives this feeling. Located in the basement of a house, the establishment is unmarked, but welcomes those diners with the right connections. The website will not help in finding this hidden gem because there is no phone number and no address and it is password protected. The only offering of the site is a picture of the Esposito family along with a greeting from the family.
New York City:
Schnitzel & Things
Calling Midtown home is a small Germanic street cart called Schnitzel & Things. The street cart was so successful that over the past years, two brick and mortar stores have been opened. Despite the latter, where the food is surely as good as the cart, it is the experience of the street cart that is the real deal. Even if there is a line of hungry people waiting to be served, it will be worth the wait.
The food available is of course schnitzel that is a hand pounded and lightly breaded (think cutlet that is fried to a golden perfection). There are three varieties of schnitzel; pork, chicken, and cod. The long line is evidence of how tasty these schnitzels really are. The Austrian potato salad or french fries served with them only enhances the experience. This is one of those pop up type street carts that patrons track on the Schnitzel & Things website. The truck is generally located in regular spaces, but moves between them quite a bit. This is the big city food truck experience at its best.
Another favorite New York City food truck is the Patacon Pisao. There are brick and mortar locations as well, but it is the truck that caters to the dinner and late night crowds, serving food between 7pm and 6am at the tip of Manhattan in Inwood.
The Patacon Pisao creates Venezuelan specialties such as tequenos, which are fried cheese rolls; cachapas, which is a corn pancake filled with cheese; arepas, which are corn cake sandwiches filled with deliciousness; and finally, the patacons. The latter are sandwiches of flattened and fried green plantains that are filled with chicken, beef, fried cheese, or roasted pork. These same delicacies are also offered at the brick and mortar versions of Patacon Pisao, but during a broader range of hours.
This vegetarian restaurant in Dallas, Texas is not deliberately secretive. However, it is easy to miss Kalachandji’s due to its location, which happens to be within a temple. The restaurant is simply hidden only from those who are unaware. When new customers do happen upon the restaurant they often comment on how they have driven past the establishment many, many times without even knowing it was there.
The locale is low key, although this does not seem to have any effect on the amount of business the restaurant gets. The key to the success of the establishment may have to do with the fact that it is a vegetarian restaurant and vegetarians often go the extra mile to seek out meatless restaurants. The word of mouth marketing works quite well for Kalachandji’s, but patrons can get updates on the daily menu on the website.
Some of the most memorable experiences occur from simply walking down a crooked back street and happening upon a little surprise. A city break becomes a thrilling experience, especially when the realization hits that the city has more to offer than previously thought.
There are literally hundreds of unconventional and hidden establishments in the UK and the United States, including restaurants, cafes, pop-ups, and clandestine clubs, as well as speakeasies and cabarets that offer various combinations of authentic cuisines, magical interiors, eccentric hosts, music, dancing, and all sorts of art and entertainment. It may be a bit of a challenge to discover these venues, but the experience is well worth the effort.