August 6th, 2011
06:00 AM ET
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Hosting a dinner party is not for the faint of heart. All the shopping, cleaning, cooking and schmoozing, followed by more cleaning, can suck the verve out of the most enthusiastic party planner.

Then there are people like Jen and Ryan Hidinger, who have 10 strangers over for dinner about twice a month. For them, it’s a labor of love with a specific goal: to create an experience that will make guests come back for more. That way, the Atlanta couple will have an instant following by the time they open a restaurant, if all goes planned, by the end of the year.

After 32 meals in almost two years, “Prelude to Staplehouse” is one of the hottest tickets in town. The supper club’s name teases its intentions to offer a sneak peek of the restaurant, tentatively named Staplehouse. In the meantime, the Indiana transplants are cooking up a brand based consistently creative dishes of fresh and seasonal ingredients, or “staples.”

Guests tend to leave their home with equally memorable impressions of the convivial atmosphere, which is just as important as the food, said Ryan Hidinger.

“This is how we want people to feel when they’re in our restaurant, like they’re in our home,” said Hidinger, who has been honing his culinary talent for the past decade in restaurants in Indianapolis and Atlanta, currently, as head chef of Muss and Turner's.

“We want it to be a place for people in the neighborhood, simple, unpretentious, casual. A place you come to not just to eat awesome food, but a place to hang out and relax.”

The concept of the intimate, quasi-legal supper club has been around for decades, from Paris to Texas to London, paving the way for secret suppers, pop-up restaurants and the first mass luncheon ever served on New York’s L train.

They rarely evolve into restaurants - especially in an era of tacos trucks and food fairs, with chefs looking to avoid investing in a brick and mortar establishment, said Kate Krader, restaurant editor of Food and Wine magazine

“Opening a restaurant doesn’t seem like end of the yellow brick road anymore,” Krader said. “On the the other hand, when you cook in your home kitchen and you know you’re doing it well and people like it, I can see why someone would want to pursue it.”

If the restaurant landscape isn't what it used to be, it’s creating a fertile climate for alternate means of building buzz - especially for the right concept. Southern-bred chef Sarah Simmons started her City Grit supper club in New York City after identifying a need to educate Yankees on the versatility of grits. The dinners expanded this year beyond her Manhattan apartment to a pop-up restaurant in a defunct Catholic school in Little Italy, with plans to grow into permanent restaurant one day.

There’s also precedent in Atlanta for the Hidingers' growth plans. Asha Gomez and her husband Bobby began welcoming groups of 20 into their home last October for the Spice Route Supper Club. Thanks in part to financial backing from one very pleased guest, they plan to open a restaurant in October.

Named “Cardamom Hill” for one of the dominant spices in Gomez’s cooking, the restaurant will offer her take on cuisine from India’s southern coastal region of Kerala. Rice and coconut are its main staples, along with seafood and - owing to Christian influences in Kerala – beef and pork. Gomez incorporates seasonal vegetables for a modern twist on the flavors of her childhood, a means of “educating” guests on the alternatives to saag paneer and tikka masala, she said.

“The supper club was a great way to test out the market and see if people are interested in regional authentic cuisine,” Gomez said.

Gomez’s intention, like the Hidingers’, to create a “third place” that fosters social interaction, seems to resonate in a city of transplants, where many find common ground in food and drink.

Donald Bernstein, an oncologist from Sandy Springs (a neighborhood located outside the perimeter that delineates in-town from the suburbs), said the unique dining experience was well worth the drive.

“We live in the suburbs so we’re used to driving. And really good Indian is hard to find in Atlanta,” Bernstein said at a recent Saturday dinner over a bowl of Kerala vegetable stew - root vegetables, cabbage, and beans simmered in a coconut broth.

“It’s also the atmosphere – the chance to sit and meet people who share my interest in ethnic food and cooking; it’s more than just food.”

Gomez hopes to retain some of the supper club’s intimacy by keeping Cardamom Hill small, perhaps by incorporating a communal table, and ensuring her hands touch “everything that comes out of the kitchen.”

But, hosting supper clubs is a tough act to quit, she said.

“I just had the best time ever this past year with supper club experiences. I met best the people, forged amazing friendships; it was my stepping stone into the culinary world and I enjoyed the journey tremendously,” she said.

Supper clubs thrive on their exclusivity, but consistency is key to maintaining momentum, she said.

“You can’t overcook the pasta or undercook the pork chops. And, no matter how fun is, if the air conditioning is not working, or the server spills water, people will think twice about going again.”

So far, the Hidingers seem to have avoided such pitfalls. Thanks to raves in food blogs, local media and through word-of-mouth, they have no trouble attracting 10 people to their home any given Sunday to donate $65 for a five-course meal, paired with wine and beer. They accept guests on a first-come, first-serve basis, lending an egalitarian air to the event and making repeat visits increasingly rare, Ryan Hidinger said. There was the case of the man who set up an auto-reply to their e-mails, but the couple caught on after the third RSVP.

On a recent Sunday, strangers began arriving at Hidingers' home in the Atlanta neighborhood of Peoplestown about 20 minutes before dinner at 6. Jen Hidinger welcomed guests from the lawn of the bungalow-style home, while inside, her husband chatted up others as they sipped glasses of wine and beer.

Some had been trying for months to get in. Others had been lucky on their first shot – no small feat, considering the dinner typically sells out within seconds of the Hidingers announcing it to a list of more than 2,000 people.

A food truck owner, a restaurant owner and a marketing research account took seats at the Hidingers’ dining table. A software programmer and two graduate students sat at the counter facing the kitchen, offering a view of the Hidingers at work and the chance to lob questions about preparing Waygu flat iron steak (course number four) and duck confit (course number three).

As beer and wine flowed, so did the chatter, ceasing for a few seconds at a time as guests took their first bites.

“This definitely doesn’t suck,” one guest said of course number two, a plate of Scottish salmon alongside avocado terrine served with a slaw of carrots, radish and cilantro and a dollop of chili lime mayo on the side.

After the meal, everyone gathered on the front lawn for the traditional group photo. Hugs and businesses cards were exchanged with vows to keep in touch.

“I have no doubt Jen and Ryan will succeed and not just because the food’s amazing,” said guest Matthew Ruppert, the owner of Noni’s, an Italian restaurant in town. “They’re focused on creating the right atmosphere, and if the whole package is anything like it is in their home, there’s no doubt that it’ll work.”

Catch up on Eatocracy's Secret Suppers

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Filed under: Pop-up • Restaurants • Underground


soundoff (48 Responses)
  1. Jerv

    OMG, those photos look sooo good. And I get to eat my leftover grits for breakfast. Sigh.....

    August 8, 2011 at 8:37 am | Reply
  2. frida

    i watched the boner on the wagon! lol!

    August 8, 2011 at 8:17 am | Reply
    • Schmellock

      Why don't you go play with your boner and get off your dads computer?

      August 8, 2011 at 8:33 am | Reply
  3. Schmellock

    Love the photos and it looks like a lot of fun. But is it really a dinner party if they are charging people?

    August 8, 2011 at 8:15 am | Reply
  4. hestercoles

    I love the Printapon website. It is so convenient and easy to use. It's coupons are great and there are sooo many. 5 stars all the way.

    August 8, 2011 at 6:15 am | Reply
  5. Angel

    All you guys need adderal something to calm you down get some of those corks popping off those chilled bottles of wine

    August 8, 2011 at 1:20 am | Reply
  6. Joshua-James Pentz III

    This is absolutely outstanding!! Imagine the introduction of ten guests invited into your in your home after you have prepared the most innovative food....and having fun while laboring in the kitchen. Hooks blue cheese and Scottish salmon.......my imagination has been completed with the flavours. FIVE STAR !!

    August 7, 2011 at 11:06 pm | Reply
  7. mm

    They are preparing food without gloves! Yuk! Unsanitary. I don't even prepare my own food without gloves.

    August 7, 2011 at 1:36 am | Reply
    • sketti

      well, youre crazy.

      August 7, 2011 at 5:56 am | Reply
    • Matt@mm

      As long as they thoroughly wash their hands there is nothing wrong with that. As a matter of fact, I found that when my staff used gloves in the kitchen they were using them to keep anything from touching their hands and tended to let the gloves get dirty. So I sh it canned the gloves and strictly monitored hand washing.

      August 8, 2011 at 6:58 am | Reply
  8. Terry

    My neighbor tried this and was taken to court. He posted online and asked for $75 per person to help with the cost of food. The neighbors hate him. The traffic and parking on those nights were a mess and the dumpsters in the alley were full of food which brought rats. We have a business district with available restaurant space 1 1/2 blocks away. He should get a space there.

    August 6, 2011 at 10:13 pm | Reply
  9. Mommy22qtz

    Friends have started a fantastic underground supper club in Chicago!!! If you are in the area, you should check them out!

    http://blog.smunderground.org/

    August 6, 2011 at 10:01 pm | Reply
  10. intown guy

    Hidingers: Your concept (staples served in elegant ways) and approach (casual, unpretentious, educational) has downtown Decatur or Oakhurst (lower rent) written all over it ... or perhaps Candler Park to give an alternative from The Flying Biscuit. I'll look for it!

    August 6, 2011 at 9:11 pm | Reply
  11. Dee Hardy

    Where is Staplehouse located?

    August 6, 2011 at 8:29 pm | Reply
  12. Betty murphy

    I have had the tremendous pleasure of dinner with Jen and Ryan. The convivial atmosphere is as wonderful as the delicious and creative food. Beautifully plated and presented by the way. The cooking area is totally open to the diners...something I would venture to guess many restaurants would be laothe to do! Atlanta has a fabulous new restaurant in the wings, if this dynamic and innovative duo can translate their intimate home dining theater to the restaurNt od their dreams!

    August 6, 2011 at 3:31 pm | Reply
    • Julius

      Great, all they have to do now is start paying taxes...

      August 6, 2011 at 3:34 pm | Reply
      • john

        "Hidinger, who has been honing his culinary talent for the past decade in restaurants in Indianapolis and Atlanta, currently, as head chef of Muss and Turner's." Learn to read, if he is currently working as head chef than odds are he is paying taxes. For every one of these articles there are a hundred fools like you.

        August 6, 2011 at 3:44 pm | Reply
      • i

        only suckers pay taxes

        August 6, 2011 at 3:58 pm | Reply
      • Rhonda

        Why would you think he doesnt pay his taxes? Odds are he is paying them by working full time as well. Good luck to you Ryan Jen!!!!

        August 6, 2011 at 7:41 pm | Reply
      • Julius

        John,
        The question is not "when he's going to start paying taxes in his life"....
        The question is: when he is going to start paying taxes for the money he's taking in from this current enterprise, the subject of this story.

        Calling other people names like "fools".... that's when you lost the argument, or have no valid argument at all....

        Have a good day, John....

        August 6, 2011 at 11:42 pm | Reply
  13. Julius

    So I suppose that's one more great story out of the economy crisis.... Think how great this is... and how this would have been impossible if there was no down turn...

    I wonder if CNN would ever run a story like this if Bush or a conservative was the president...

    August 6, 2011 at 3:28 pm | Reply
    • really?

      Julius, I am a conservative and you are a poor excuse for one.

      June 14, 2013 at 11:23 am | Reply
  14. Marjorie Taylor

    Love it! Here at The Cook's Atelier in Beaune, France, we have people from all over the world join us for a convivial cooking class/dining experience. It's magical! Congratulations to Ryan and Jen. Be sure to let us know if you make your way to Burgundy, we'll save a seat.

    August 6, 2011 at 2:15 pm | Reply
  15. nosold

    I was wonder how the health department feels about this? Nobody is inspecting the cooking area, YUCK!!

    August 6, 2011 at 1:02 pm | Reply
    • woohoo

      You are! The guest sees exactly what the kitchen looks like unlike dining in any given restaurant, no?

      August 6, 2011 at 2:36 pm | Reply
      • Gabriel

        ditto

        August 6, 2011 at 7:28 pm | Reply
    • singinbells

      stfu. Why do you have to say something like that? I sense 100% negative vibes from you hiding behind your pc. Ew.

      August 6, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Reply
    • im in Atlanta

      I bet that they're kitchen is spotless because of having guest over. Think about it, if you are having guest over for dinner and trying to make a good impression the kitchen will be the number one focal point while your preparing dinner. I would love to be invited to dinner at the Hidinger's. Yum!!! Good luck on your endevors and I hope to hear when the resturaunt opens. We live in fayetteville and will look for your resturaunt opening.!

      August 6, 2011 at 5:17 pm | Reply
  16. JEBaugh

    Sounds great! But when did everyone start calling them "smashed" potatoes and why? Sounds childish, not sophisticated.

    August 6, 2011 at 12:48 pm | Reply
    • CJ259

      I agree. 'Sammy's' is annoying too. I think it goes back to Rachael Ray. She refers to some of her food like that.

      August 6, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Reply
    • singinbells

      Maybe the idea is to retain the original term? Does everything have to be sophisticated? (rolls eyes)

      August 6, 2011 at 3:28 pm | Reply
    • bob

      because there are different from mashed.... hence why they dont look like mashed potatoes which are creamy\fluffy, not like those which were coarse and smashed.

      August 6, 2011 at 4:20 pm | Reply
    • AJ

      Because they are smashed, not mashed. Meaning, just smashed once to break up the shape, not beaten vigorously to create a homogenous puree. So they started to be called like that the moment they were prepared like that.

      August 7, 2011 at 9:14 am | Reply
  17. James

    so you mentioned that they were "quasi-legal". So you're not supposed to run a restaurant out of your house hence the idea of "donations". I think it makes a lot of sense though. Great story.

    August 6, 2011 at 12:46 pm | Reply
  18. irishman

    im hungry

    August 6, 2011 at 12:30 pm | Reply
    • FRANK

      me2

      August 6, 2011 at 8:28 pm | Reply
    • NoDoubt

      Me 3

      August 6, 2011 at 8:42 pm | Reply
  19. Stranger than Kitchen

    @emanuellgrinberg these dinners seem great! Love the Staple House blog. Sort of a twist on what I am doing. I call it the stranger than kitchen project. You can check it out here.
    STRANGERTHANKITCHEN.com
    Let me know what you think! It's a new twist on cooking delicious foods for strangers.

    August 6, 2011 at 11:41 am | Reply
  20. Jace

    Love this story. Restaurants seem like a tough business - hard to open, and even harder to run - so it's awesome to hear about people finding creative ways to pursue their dreams and set themselves up for success. Best of luck to Ryan and Jenn.

    August 6, 2011 at 11:40 am | Reply
  21. Jared

    I love the idea of a supper club!

    August 6, 2011 at 8:20 am | Reply
    • Mei

      I wish them well in their restaurant endeavors but the idea of dining in someone's home just doesn't sound very comfortable to me (though they might be rich already and have a really really nice house that doesn't look like it was lived-in??). I like the idea of businesses who make really great, homemade meals that one can take home with them after work. Or better yet, the business delivers them to your workplace when you get off, so you can just drive home and have dinner with your family. Of course, you'd need family course meals that are affordable. :)

      August 6, 2011 at 7:53 pm | Reply
    • Tigerette

      ....the only experience I have had with a Supper Club is the one I frequented while at Auburn University but for a whole nuther reason other than eating ;) This here Supper Club is so generous and unique. I want to be a part of one day!!! Thanks for the show of passion and love given through your passion and love, Jen and Ryan :)

      August 6, 2011 at 11:13 pm | Reply
    • rs1201

      the first thing that pops to my mind is theses people's safety. I know it's Atlanta and not NYC...but there are criminals everywhere...How do they pick these ten people? It's a huge security issue and I wouldn't know how to get around it short of having armed security guards in the house...just in case! They appear to be nice people and I certainly wish them success...but nonetheless...what they're doing is worrisome!

      August 7, 2011 at 7:15 am | Reply

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