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Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

Asya Ollis - Photo by Arianne Teeple
Asya Ollis - Photo by Arianne Teeple
It's Sunday evening in Baltimore's Waverly neighborhood and roughly two dozen guests are savoring a nine-course meal. It begins with Sartori raspberry and pickled cherry blossoms on a cracker and ends with coconut mascarpone cake, smoked meringue, and uniekaas and espresso tuile.

Google choosing Kansas City over Baltimore, alternative medicine, and a couple's upcoming nuptials are a sampling of the dinner conversation. The crowd is in their 20s and 30s except for the Roses, the parents of "Ace of Cakes" Katie Rose, who receive a toast to their 30th wedding anniversary.

An intimate restaurant opening? A dinner party among friends and friends of friends?

A little bit of both. Some call it a supper club. Others call it a pop-up restaurant. Some organizers favor the term "dinner theater."

They take place once or twice a month in a person's home or other non-restaurant venue. You won't hear a radio ad or see a billboard promoting them. Each time a new date is announced for one of these dinner parties, news spreads quickly via word of mouth and the web. Organizers often turn away a dozen or more folks who are put on a wait list.

"They're magical," Asya Ollis says of the supper club experience. "It's a special, fun, one-time occasion and you have all those memories from that night."

You can eat at your favorite restaurant every week and the experience would be more or less the same. But at a small dinner party whose menu and guests vary each time, each meal will be different, says Ollis, who has worked at Thomas Keller's Per Se in New York. Ollis will host her second supper club this month highlighting foods from the South Indian state of Kerala at the Woman's Industrial Exchange.

Supper clubs cropped up about five years ago in San Francisco and New York and are now making their way to Baltimore and other smaller cities.

They're informal and inexpensive, between $10 and $40, which just covers the cost of food. Hosts, who are sometimes budding restaurant owners or caterers, get a taste of what it would be like to own their own place.

Sure, they've spent days preparing the menu, buying the ingredients, and cooking, but they didn't have to shell out a ton of money. Other organizers use the dinner as an opportunity to raise awareness of social causes.

Sometimes Dining, the Waverly dinner, has been around since June 2009. The operators of Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse and Baltimore Development Cooperative have been running STEW for a little over a year. Held at community space 2640, STEW is the largest with a capacity of 126. The $10 fee goes toward three local nonprofits that give a presentation in between courses.

Guests who attend the BYOB events say they are drawn by the eclectic food combinations and the chance to meet new people.

In an age where people spend the bulk of their day behind a computer, many are hungry for that old-fashioned kind of entertaining, says Jenn Garbee, a Los Angeles Times food writer and author of "Secret Supper."

"How do you meet new people," when Tweeting and sending Facebook messages is the preferred style of communication? "We don't do that anymore."

Throw in the cult of the celebrity chef, farm-to-table dining, and the cable food shows and the natural answer is through food. Never mind the fact that, technically speaking, supper clubs are illegal, Garbee says. Once you start charging for serving food, you open yourself up to a host of liability issues and need a bunch of permits and licenses to do that.

But that only adds to supper clubs' appeal and gives them an "edgy, interesting" vibe, Garbee says. City health departments usually have more pressing issues to attend to and organizers say they aren't in it to make a profit, but to have fun.  

And you have some serious foodie credentials behind that fun. Matt Day, of Woodberry Kitchen, and Dane Nestor, formerly of the Hampden restaurant, cook up STEW's meals, which focus on local meats and produce. Ollis took cooking classes in people's homes in Kerala, southern India.

It's no wonder that getting a place at the table turns into a competitive sport.

Hamilton resident and art teacher Geoff Grace laments the fact that that he hasn't been to the Waverly supper club for more than a year now because he doesn't own an iPhone. Most folks hear about the latest Sometimes Dining supper through an RSS feed.

So Grace, the 2008 winner of the Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize, told his friend and co-organizer Phil Kerrigan to save a few spots for him, his fianc´┐Że, and a friend. Kerrigan prepares the meal along with his fellow Maryland Institute of Art grads Matt Papich and Ben Turner from "Ace of Cakes."

Ollis' first event sold out in a week and a half after spreading the word through her alma mater, Oberlin College, alumni group.

When Garbee's book came out in 2008, she thought supper clubs were a passing fad. But three years later, they are still going strong.  So they might just be here to stay.

"It's been really nice to foster a sense of community," says STEW's Kate Khatib. "Nothing brings people together like food."

Julekha Dash is Development News Editor at Bmore Media and a former health care and higher education reporter for the Baltimore Business Journal.

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Photo credits:

- Asya Ollis, runs a supper club at the Women's Industrial Exchange focusing on South Indian food. Photo by Arianne Teeple
- Spinach Pachadi. Courtesy of Asya Ollis
- Asya Ollis talks to guests at her supper club that she focuses on South Indian food. Courtesy of Asya Ollis
- Ben Turner, Heidi Gustafson, Phil Kerrigan, and Matt Papich with sometimes dining. Photo by Arianne Teeple
- Fried artichokes and saffron aioli. Courtesy of sometimes dining
- Thinly sliced speculoos pork and roasted radishes. Courtesy of sometimes dining

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