In today’s fame-hungry culture, not everyone seeks to be known.
At least, that’s how it seems with a peculiar group of restaurants. Diverging from celebrity chef hopefuls, the people behind these restaurants don’t advertise, seek media attention, or even hang a sign. They remain conundrums to the outside world, with only a select few joining the inner circle of diners privy to their culinary secrets.
Some of these "secret" restaurants are simply humble. Others are fiercely exclusive, demanding passwords, intermediaries, and unspecified proofs of loyalty to land a seat at the table. Then, there are those that use secrecy as its own form of publicity.
During the past decade, an increasing number of restaurants and bars have tried this approach. Clever at first, it's now gotten to the point that "clandestine" places with "secret" names are putting signs up outside that say things like, "Speakeasy." Why not a 10-foot tall, flashing neon sign outside proclaiming, "SECRET BAR AND RESTAURANT HERE!" But there are places that go beyond the gimmick, or do it better than others.
Coming up with a list of the most secret or hidden restaurants isn't easy. After all, someone's been, right? These are restaurants that we're talking about. But it's not hard to strike off the most obvious ones — restaurants that are much less hidden and much more known than others. So no, New York City's La Esquina and PDT (it's really a bar anyway) don't count. Neither do supper clubs. And to be included on this list, the restaurant has to be more than some dude in his basement making lobster rolls or grilled cheese sandwiches.
So why keep yourself hidden with all of the competition out there in the restaurant world? Vernon Hidden Steakhouse’s general manager, Jamie Monske, explains, “We want to do something no one else does. With the current economy, we had to stand out, and [our speakeasy theme] has really helped us to stay afloat. Not only are we afloat, but we are growing.” A manager from Sidecar in Washington D.C. elaborates on the advantages of privacy, “Sidecar has a positive effect on restaurant business in the sense that it offers a nice contrast to the slightly more casual environment of [sister restaurant] PJ Clarke’s on the upper level.”
After all, who doesn’t want to feel like the member of a club, a “chosen one” of a selective circle? Indeed, many of these restaurants promise such pampering. Says Kimi Watanabe of Bohemian New York, “What we try to offer is a space where customers can have a quality time with their friends and loved ones. We try to establish and maintain close relationships with each one of our customers.” Eating in a secret restaurant can make you feel like you are being paid attention to, and that you belong.
Whether it's a gimmick, indifference, or a defense mechanism, the secrecy of a restaurant only makes a reservation there that much more desirable. Ultimately, we can’t help but want what we can’t have.
Bohemian (New York City)
Says spokesperson Kimi Watanabe, "Bohemian New York is an invitation/referral only secret hide-out for our beloved NAKAMA (Japanese for 'a group of people who are feeling the same vibe'). Our phone number is kept confidential among our repeat customers and their friends and family. In order to gain access to a reservation, those interested must be referred by someone who has been to Bohemian. Or, send us a brief self-introduction through our web site (in time they may receive an invitation)."
Chef Vola’s (Atlantic City, N.J.)
You have to be in the family to get a seat at one of Chef Vola's 12 tables in Atlantic City, N.J. or at least that's the mystique surrounding the Italian eatery. The unmarked establishment is located in the basement of a house and welcomes only those with the right connections. The web site is no help — password-protected, revealing no phone number or address, it offers only a picture of the Esposito family and this elusive greeting: "In 2007, the Esposito family celebrated their 25th anniversary at Chef Vola's restaurant. Thank you and God bless."
Vernon’s Hidden Valley Steakhouse (Albuquerque, N.M.)
This "high-class speakeasy" is located within the Village Shops at Los Ranchos. Formerly in the corner of a liquor store, Vernon’s Hidden Valley Steakhouse is hidden behind an outside door with no signage or marking. Diners must knock three times and give a secret password to enter. The password changes weekly, so even those aware of the location can’t gain easy access. According to general manager Jamie Monske, plans are underway to open a VIP lounge in the back of the restaurant with its own password, adding another level of exclusivity to the already discreet dining room.
Hudson Clearwater (New York City)
Hudson Clearwater doesn’t hide their phone number or address, but if you didn’t know to look for it, you probably wouldn’t find it. The restaurant’s address looks like an abandoned storefront, and you have to enter through an unmarked green door on a cross street to discover the patio and dining room. It’s worth the hunt — chef Wes Long’s thoughtfully crafted, seasonal American fare would appeal to anyone fortunate enough to stumble upon it.
Club 33 (Anaheim, Calif.)
Club 33 is an exclusive club within the New Orleans section of Disneyland, and its exclusivity borders on the occult. Less than 500 members are permitted, and the time on the waiting list allegedly averages around 14 years (the unofficial web site said at the time of publication that the waiting list has been closed). Legend has it that Walt Disney began Club 33 as a way to wine and dine important guests and clients. Only those possessing a membership card have access past the discreet "33" mirror at the entryway within the park.
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