By Azeen Ghorayshi
Anyone who has ever hosted a dinner party knows it can be a backbreaking—albeit rewarding—experience. From finding the perfect date to fit everyone’s schedules, to agonizing over a menu worthy of the occasion, to ensuring there is enough wine to last through the night, to the inevitable post-party dishwash, I’ve sometimes found myself wishing I could simply put the whole ordeal in the hands of an experienced pro and be done with it.
Fortunately not everyone shares my sentiments about entertaining, and a new underground supper club in San Francisco has cooked up a simple answer to my kind of dilemma. Grubly is the newest of many clubs to make it to the SF dining scene, but the differences are twofold: dinners usually happen weekly, and they are hosted by local chefs at their own humble or not-so-humble abodes. On top of enjoying a delicious meal and conversation with a group of fellow local foodies, you meet a great chef—who is usually actively participating in the dinner party conversation while nonchalantly julienning carrots and hollering from the kitchen.
“I grew up all over the world, but I like to think that I grew up at many different dinner tables,” says Desiree Golen, co-founder of Grubly. “So when I first pitched the idea of Grubly in November of last year, it was really just as a place to go for great home-cooked food.”
Golen was working at an SF startup called Airbnb at the time, a service that allows users to pay to stay in people’s apartments and houses almost anywhere in the world. According to Golen, she took this idea of having truly authentic travel experiences in people’s homes and applied it to dining. “This is something we really wanted Grubly to be—a place where people can learn more about the culinary culture of their local area, and the people who make up that culture,” says Golen. Now, nearly a year later, Golen has hosted more than 100 meals all over the Bay Area.
I attended my first dinner with very few expectations—I had never been to a supper club event, despite the fact that my desktop is littered with restaurant menu PDFs and my RSS feed is embarrassingly overpopulated by food blogs. I was greeted at a trendy loft and brought upstairs, where guests were slowly trickling in. Initially, Grubsters (as Golen affectionately dubs her clientele) seemed to be a diverse crowd.
But over the course of two-and-a-half hours, five bottles of wine, and a delicious four-course rustic Italian meal served by our chef, Benjamin Brignola, diners discussed everything from spraining ankles at Burning Man to working in the tech sector to (I’m serious) a former endocrinologist sharing how she decided to name her firstborn after a hormone.
Brignola shared his life’s stories as well, alternating between washing some dishes and checking on the tenderness of his gnocchi. While sprinkling a delicious basil mint oil over a 6.5 hour Bordeaux-braised shortrib dish, Brignola told the guests about his journey from Philly—where he was working as a cigar salesman and photographer—and the cross-country roadtrip that made him fall in love with San Francisco and decide to pursue a career as a professional chef. The meal was incredibly enjoyable, due as much to Brignola’s culinary skills as to the unique set of personalities that made it to the table. “I left stuffed, gratified, and ready to be a committed Grubster,” said diner Indra Clark. “You just don’t get experiences like this very often.”
And because Grubly dinners are entirely determined by the chef who hosts that evening, both the fare and the fares can vary widely. One supper Golen described was hosted by a Bay Area Slow Food leader whose focus is on empowering low-income areas to cook healthy meals; the chef bought all of her ingredients from Whole Foods and managed to charge diners only $5 per person.
Other dinners, including one cooked by a well-known local raw food chef, have cost as much as $60 a pop, though most range from around $20 to $40. Grubsters receive text messages telling them about dinners in their area that week, and can opt in if they are available and if it falls within their price range.
But what about Grubly in the Southland? “There’s been a great deal of interest in a lot of the culinary meccas of the U.S.—Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, DC—so our next goal is to have a sort of landing page that allows people to sign on from those different locations and vote to ‘unlock’ their locations,” says Golen. Once a city reaches 5,000 votes, Grubly will begin to set up shop, and Golen hopes it will eventually become a go-to for people checking in to underground dinners anywhere in the country. And what was Golen’s favorite Grubly dinner so far? An event called Macarocktails, where a macaroon pastry chef and a mixologist teamed up to create a set of three unique macaroon-cocktail pairings, while guests mingled on a rooftop in San Francisco overlooking the sunset. “It was just a beautiful time with a really wonderful group of people. I think that’s what’s so great about Grubly—it’s not just about the food, it’s about the entire experience created around it.” And, you don’t have to wash the dishes.
Rustic Italian recipes from chef Benjamin Brignola
More about spontaneous informal dining at Palate Pleasing Pop-upsauthentic travel, pop up restaurant, rustic Italian