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There I was, sitting at a table with six complete strangers, sipping wine and eating the rustic French dish coq au vin. The chicken thighs, tender from having been braised for hours in red wine, sat among halved mushrooms and slivers of salty bacon. Next to that was a creamy mound of garlic mashed potatoes perfect for swiping through a pool of delicate braising liquid that had been reduced into a sauce. What was on the plate would've cost $20 or more at any local French eatery. But I wasn't eating in a licensed establishment. I was at Squat-N-Gobble, a rogue restaurant operating secretly out of a Fort Lauderdale apartment.
What exactly is a rogue restaurant? Basically, it's a clandestine, unlicensed restaurant — often located in an apartment, down a hidden alleyway, or in a rental kitchen — whose proprietor will sell seats to guests looking for a unique experience. The movement is gaining popularity and has been covered by Bon Appetit, Food and Wine, and Tony Bourdain.
Proponents of the trend will tell you that these hidden eatups — which usually require diners to be in the know via a Facebook or Twitter page — offer an alternate take on dining out. The act of challenging commonly held notions about dining seems to be as important as the meal itself. But critics of rogue eateries (mostly government agencies) claim that such establishments skirt standards that are in place to protect the public good.
Squat-N-Gobble has been operating via Facebook and word of mouth for about seven months now. I was introduced to SnG by Reed Fischer, New Times' music editor. He had found the place through another group of friends who frequent some bars in the Himmarshee area of Fort Lauderdale. Customers must call and make reservations for the prix-fixe dinners, which usually revolve around a theme. Although most people take the opportunity to share an intimate dinner with new friends, others just stop in to grab takeout containers.
Reed told me that both of the meals he'd had at Squat-N-Gobble were outstanding. The week prior, he'd stopped in for Cajun-style jambalaya. On another occasion, SnG's chef and founder — who goes by the moniker JLo — had prepared for him a special gluten-free meal of risotto and salmon. The meal was so good that he extolled on his Facebook page: "I'm probably going to be thinking about that risotto till I perish." Eager to return, Reed asked me to accompany him two Wednesdays ago in what was supposed to be the restaurant's farewell dinner.
Farewell dinner? That's right. JLo had started Squat-N-Gobble in November as a way to share her passion for cooking. Pretty soon, however, she was inviting upward of ten guests over for dinner four nights per week. Coupled with her day job as a psychologist for a busy local hospital, that pace was unrelenting. She backed down to two days a week until she decided, reluctantly, that she would be shelving the restaurant for good.
Following our dinner that Wednesday night, however, her enthusiasm was renewed. We arrived around 7:30 p.m. and were greeted by a handful of regular diners who were already pouring wine and enjoying themselves. Among them was Ilesa, JLo's partner in Squat-N-Gobble. Since she wasn't cooking, I asked her what she did for the restaurant. "I basically put up the grocery money!" she said with a laugh. In the nearby open kitchen, JLo introduced herself. The 31-year-old is tall and energetic, with long brown hair and a warm smile. She told us tonight's menu included slow-braised coq au vin with garlic mashed potatoes, a salad of mixed greens, and, for dessert, chocolate croissant bread pudding. The cost was just $8 per person.
After sharing some introductions and pouring a few glasses of wine, we sat down at JLo's dining table in the middle of her cozy, one bedroom apartment. Though we were sitting at the table with a handful of strangers (at least I was; Reed knew some of them from prior meals), we felt welcome right away. "Go ahead and start the salad, guys," JLo called from the kitchen as she finished plating our main course.
A few of the regulars began passing around a wooden salad bowl filled with mixed greens and light vinaigrette. "This dill really goes great in this dressing," said Reed, slyly tossing out a little flavor knowledge on the rest of us.
Dinner at SnG is much more informal than a typical restaurant. Passing food around with other diners whom you don't exactly know forces you to step outside your comfort zone, which can make for a more interesting meal. Plus, having the chef sit and eat with you really illuminates the connection between kitchen and table. As we dug into our coq au vin, I was able to ask JLo more about her inspiration for starting the restaurant.
"It all began when I read an article about underground restaurants in Bon Appetit," she said. "I love to cook, so I thought, 'I can do that.' " The restaurant's name, she says, refers to the fact that her patrons sit and eat.