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Second City Underground Dining Club Keeps a Low Profile

By Janet Rausa Fuller | January 10, 2014 6:36am
 The Second City Food Wine + Social Club, a new underground dining club, requires its members to keep the identities of its chef and sommelier secret.
Second City Food Wine + Social Club
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CHICAGO — The city's newest underground dining club will feed you a Michelin-quality meal — as long as you don't blow its cover.

First, you have to get in. Membership to the Second City Food Wine + Social Club, which holds its next dinner on Jan. 17, is by referral only and even then, isn't guaranteed.

Once accepted, you can still get the boot if you violate the club's cardinal rule: revealing the identities of its chef and sommelier.

Why all the secrecy?

Because, the sommelier said, he and the chef really want to keep their day jobs at their respective "highly reputable" Chicago restaurants, each of which has at least one Michelin star.

"The owners of both of our restaurants are strong opponents of these types of endeavors. But we love doing it," said the sommelier, who would only be interviewed using the alias "Mark."

Mark keeps a similarly anonymous profile on his blog, Windy City Epicurean. His enviable resume lists Tru and Charlie Trotter's in Chicago and El Celler de Can Roca in Spain — named the world's best restaurant in 2013 by Restaurant magazine.

That's where the seed for the Second City dining club was planted. In his off-hours, Mark and other employees at El Celler de Can Roca staged underground dinners for diners unable to eat at the renowned restaurant.

"It was very difficult for people to get reservations, so we did these dinners once a month for anyone who wanted to experience that level of food and wine," he said.

The Second City events are held in members' homes to show people it's possible to have a Michelin-quality dining experience at home.

In October, after Mark befriended fellow food blogger Kit Graham and lifestyle bloggers Lauren Folkmann, Laura Nash and Katharine Shindoll at a blogging event, the talk turned to joining forces for some sort of wine-focused event.

"We realized we had the opportunity to make it bigger and better than we had initially thought," Graham said.

Graham is adept at social media and member outreach, while Nash does Web design. Folkmann handles operations, and Shindoll is responsible for decor, down to the tablescapes.

"I quickly became the restaurant guy," said Mark, who brought his chef friend (who goes by the alias "Charlie") into the fold.

And very quickly, the group put together the first Second City Food Wine + Social Club dinner in November.

There are currently more than 120 members. To apply, fill out a form on the club's website, which is vetted by the founders. You do have to know a current member or be referred by one, but the exclusivity is pretty easy to crack, Graham said.

"We're very social network-able people. It's extremely easy to meet us," she said. "We are the social butterflies of Chicago."

Restaurant industry types need not apply — at least those who the founders think might know Mark or Charlie. The club caters more to "social media nerds who are into food and wine," Mark said.

Tweeting and posting photos of the dinners are highly encouraged, but taking photos of the chef or sommelier is grounds for dismissal from the club.

The Jan. 17 event, to be held in Lakeview, will be buffet style and modeled after a speakeasy. Attendees will get an email with the address the night before. Tickets are $80. It'll feel more like a party than the December event, which was a $115 sit-down dinner with champagne and all kinds of wine pairings.

Because the dinners are held in private homes, the seating is capped at 50. But they decorate the homes lavishly, even temporarily replacing existing furniture with rentals that go with the theme.

The club also has partnered with the Lakeview salon Goldplaited for the dinner next week, which will give members a discount on hair and makeup, done 1920s-style, before the gathering.

"We don't go halfway with anything," Graham said.