Guerilla dining

You’re on the guest list, but only if you can find it. Kristen Pickett explores Halifax’s underground restaurant scene.

Pork on a waffle, but it’s a secret. - KRISTEN PICKETT
Pork on a waffle, but it’s a secret.

When I received this issue's assignment, it generated an uneasiness that lasted throughout the week. I was slightly nervous about going to an open BBQ, listed on Facebook and hosted by people I didn't even know. But when Friday evening rolled around, while getting ready to head out, I gave myself a serious reality check: I was going to a "restaurant" held in a home cook's backyard. What could be cooler than that?

As we arrive at the location, I check the house number for the third time. Hearing the sound of music and chatter, we part the sexy beaded curtain that separates the street from the mystery within. Once inside, it's as cute as a little backyard restaurant could be. Picnic tables are set with linen and flowers in various wine and spirit bottles; scattered benches and lawn chairs are clustered for seating and a blanket with throw pillows looks so inviting that we decide to plant ourselves there for the evening.

The menu is designed so that the principal items stay the same while the flavour combinations alternate. Each week will feature (a variation on) a waffle topped with BBQ'd pork belly, vegetable slaw and a house- pickled vegetable. The pork belly (from Roselane Farms) is smoked over Nova Scotian applewood at a friend's farm in the Annapolis Valley, while all the vegetables come from the market. Patrons can get a plate of this yummy goodness for just $6.

I have just as much fun as I'd have on a casual restaurant patio. The attraction for the customer is the cache---a feeling of being part of something special. These types of underground restaurants are often only publicized through word of mouth and social media. If you know the right people, you'll find out about the real good dinners. Guerilla dining also provides a less pressured experience on a diner's wallet: you can have a gourmet-type meal at a low cost.

The hosts (who wish to remain anonymous due to permit issues) tell me that they saw a need for something new and explain that "Nobody's doing anything like this." The man running the Q, a chef with experience in a number of fine dining restaurants, he admits that, "I had a need to be filled too"---to cook. In underground, quasi-legal restaurants, there is an obvious appeal for chefs to craft their own menus without restrictions.

This backyard BBQ isn't just a convivial atmosphere but a convivial project as well. The Q-man adds that "It's inclusive, not intimidating." And don't restaurants like these really make the pleasure of dining all the more enjoyable? Food is one of life's universal languages. People come together around food---in happiness and in sorrow. It helps us to connect with one another. Guerilla restaurants, where strangers sit together, assist in opening up the lines of communication between people of all walks of life who wouldn't otherwise have anything in common.

It's not all fun and games, though. Restaurateurs operating without permits and licences can find themselves facing serious fines if caught. Mike Horwich, director of the Nova Scotia Food Safety Office, says that he normally hears of them through some type of complaint---be it a disgruntled customer, or worse, a hospital reporting a food-borne illness. "We investigate every complaint we get," he adds firmly. Some operations have been shut down in the past, but Horwich concedes they rarely get to the stage where they have to enforce fines.

Then there are those who think the reward is worth the risk. As this issue goes to print, there are at least two other guerilla restaurants known to The Coast. With success such as these guys are having, I wouldn't be surprised if more of these underground restaurants start popping up all over Halifax. And if I can find them, they can count on my reservation.

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