What do you think about holding a dinner here one night?
Renée Lavallée pitched that to the owners of Dartmouth's Two If By Sea Cafe a year ago. Neither Tara MacDonald nor Zane Kelsall had professional restaurant experience, but they loved the idea.
The rest, as they say, is history. Not only do these three run the most successful of the many supper clubs popping up across the city, they might just dish up Halifax's tastiest meals, full stop.
They sit diners at long tables and serve them family-style. Diners pass platters to one another, help themselves to seconds or if they're lucky, snatch some leftovers.
"For me in the kitchen, that means less plating, less frou- frou," says Lavallée. "We wanted that convivial feeling of just family, like a Sunday night dinner."
Over the last year, they've ironed out a system. With each dinner, the wait list grows. The team hashes out dinners into themes from The Godfather to Southern pig BBQ. For $50 your four-course meal might include rabbit rillettes, beef brisket, raw kale salad or pickled watermelon. Kelsall does coffee, MacDonald desserts.
Family dinners are completely different from Lavallée's last job as executive chef at downtown's Five Fishermen. In fact, the family dinners inspired her to break away and start cooking on her own terms. "Before, my hands were tied, pretty much," Lavallée says. "Your true style doesn't come out. Here, I can do whatever I want."
Tasting Korean and Mexican street food, as well as visiting restaurants run out of private homes in Cuba, inspired last summer's busy dining club called Young&Dublin open-air eating.
"The essence of open-air eating is a hunger for experiential dining, and dining that offers more unexpected elements to traditional dining," says host Natalie Chavarie.
People sat together under a handmade pergola in Chavarie's backyard, looking onto her garden. They ate tacos by Virgil Muir—bulgogi beef, Korean spicy pork, Caribbean jerk, Mexican beef or tofu tacos—served with sides of rice, beans and house kimchi.
What amazed Chavarie was the range of people who ate in her backyard. Twentysomethings showed up, but the median age sat squarely between 30 and 45. Neighbourhood families arrived en masse. Starting in January, Young&Dublin will offer a series of community suppers at Local Jo Cafe.
"The local food movement is the funnest social movement so far," says Sean Gallagher, owner of Local Source Market. "It's trying to re-invent restaurant culture in a sense."
All of these clubs are sworn locavores, and Gallagher is a pioneer of one-off dining in Halifax. Since 2007, he's hosted brunches, supper clubs, even catered events in forests. Now he runs a club called Pop Up Halifax, which has held everything from elaborate open-air dinner parties at the Dingle to simple dessert nights in Java Blend.
Send him an email and he'll reply with an invite and a menu. He'll send an address the day before. "My whole mission with what we do is to raise food culture around Halifax, to get people outside of their comfort zone and to have a fun time eating local food," he says.
Gallagher cooks in his licensed kitchen and caters food to his events. Likewise, Lavallée works out of the TIBS kitchen. Both have permits. Whether other dining clubs in private homes skirt the law depends on how they see diners—as friends, or customers?
If you serve food in your home to friends, then ask for a donation, "we're silent on that issue. It's your business," says Mike Horwich, director of food protection for the province. "But when you put out an open invitation, that's a bit different. Then you need a permit."
Given that clubs use words like "family," "community" and "neighbourhood," their whole ethic leans to friendship over custom. Ergo, potential loophole.
The success of pop-up dining—the year's most exciting food trend—points to a crossroads in Halifax food culture: Who, aside from authorities, still considers strangers breaking bread together a subversive act?
"It is kind of a grey area," admits Gallagher, but, "what are they going to do—send a narc?"
For more information:
TIBS Family Dinners, Facebook page or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Young&Dublin, Facebook page or email email@example.com
Pop Up Halifax: firstname.lastname@example.org