Snagging a reservation for the pop-up Hi Felicia Supper Club in 2021 was appealing for many reasons. There was the promise of fine dining-level food by chef Imana, in the unconventional setting of her apartment balcony, with sweeping views of the Oakland hills and a handful of other diners around you. Not only did the food taste delectable, but an undercurrent also ran through the space: the feeling of being very in the know. Here, at a dinner that required significant diligence in order to get a seat, and for which diners were directed to an unknown address and apartment, the vibe felt distinctly underground and fun.
Launching in 2021, Hi Felicia Supper Club was among the first of a recent wave of supper clubs to debut in the Bay Area. When Imana later opened her permanent restaurant in Oakland, she dropped “supper club” from the name, signifying a shift from dinner party pop-up to established space. “I didn’t want to call it a dinner party or pop-up,” Imana says. “I thought ‘supper club’ truly encapsulated the whole experience of something underground, and it’s fun and different. Now that it’s a restaurant, I would never call it that.”
But the Bay Area supper clubs of 2023 share little commonality with the supper clubs of the past. The earliest supper clubs sprang up in London in the late 1800s in response to a law that forced pubs and restaurants to close at 12:30 a.m. These clubs were allowed to remain open since they were considered private establishments, and doormen would allow members in for a night of dancing, food, and drinks after the theater. Versions in New York followed soon after, including a New York institution called the Supper Club. Ron Faiola, author of The Wisconsin Supper Clubs Story, describes the Supper Club as a rebellion against conventionality. “It was their own brand of hedonism — eat, drink, dance, sing, fight, and make whoopee,” Faiola writes. During Prohibition, other versions of supper clubs in the United States had ties to roadhouses on the outskirts of towns in places like Wisconsin. Supper clubs proliferated through the midwest and remain concentrated there to this day, though they’re generally more focused on food and drinks than entertainment.
Since then, separated by miles and time, the term “supper club” has become an umbrella term for … well, it’s not quite certain, exactly. Given that supper clubs don’t have as much of a history in the Bay Area, the term has taken on many more meanings here. There are supper clubs that center around food and live entertainment, such as Black Cat Jazz Supper Club, but more recently, supper clubs have become synonymous with ticketed pop-ups or underground dinner parties, somewhat closer to the term’s speakeasy origins. Many of the Bay Area’s modern supper clubs are actually pop-ups — beyond Hi Felicia’s early days, there’s also Queer Deluxe and Virgo Supperclub, among others — similar to the phenomenon happening in Boston and New York. “While there has never been an exact consensus of what makes a supper club a supper club,” Faiola writes, “there has always been one common element: people sharing a late meal with others.”
As such, modern supper clubs are taking the term and running with it, bending it to whatever they want their gatherings to feel like. Garrett Schlichte and Lara Ortiz-Luis run Virgo Supperclub, a dinner party pop-up. Schlichte says they like to curate an experience for their attendees, and there’s freedom in running a supper club versus a permanent restaurant. “I think for us, we really lean into the spirit of trying to do things that are fun or weird or a little different or that maybe you couldn’t necessarily get away with if you had to do you a la carte at a normal restaurant,” Schlichte says. “I think ‘supper club’ is just interesting and exciting.”
For Mr. Digby’s, a restaurant and bar in Noe Valley, using the term supper club conveys a sense of freedom. Owners Kristen Gianaras McCaffery and Mike McCaffery launched a “supper club” series taking place every third Thursday of the month. Each event showcases a different theme, starting with February’s inaugural Tropical Adventure and a Church Street Chicken event set for March. For the McCafferys, having a supper club exist within the structure of their restaurant provides them and consulting chef Kirsten Goldberg more flexibility to get creative with new cuisines. It also opens up the possibility of partnerships with other restaurants and gives the neighborhood something to look forward to, they say. “As opposed to a dinner series or something,” Mike says, “there’s a warmer, more inviting feeling like they’re a part of this. It’s not just on our calendar every month, it’s on our guests’ calendars and as soon as they hear about it, they’re signing up to make a reservation.”
It’s all about creating good times for the community, the McCafferys say. “Because of the pandemic, I feel like coming out the other side, people are craving experiences again and being out with people and creating memories,” Kristen says. “I think that’s what people think when they hear ‘supper club.’” In other words, there’s a sense of community associated with the term “supper club” that doesn’t necessarily translate with the word “restaurant.” Supper clubs have always been a way for groups to create a space for themselves: “The supper club is about the longing for belonging,” writes Dave Hoekstra, author of The Supper Club Book: A Celebration of Midwest Tradition.
“We do want people to feel camaraderie or kinship,” Schlichte says. “I think that really does speak to the supper club aspect of it, is the community part — bringing people together.”