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.
One of the dinner guests, a DJ and part-time Census Bureau worker named Miguel, interjected. "This chicken is so soft!" he said, swiping up a big bite of coq au vin with wine sauce. Everybody laughed hysterically at his choice of adjective, but he was right: The chicken was so tender, you could cut it with a fork.
I couldn't get over the fact that Squat-N-Gobble charged only $8 for a meal this good. I asked JLo how she could possibly get away with charging so little. "I usually only ask for a 'suggested donation' of $6," she said. "But I don't usually serve wine or dessert. And this time, I used wine to make the chicken, so I had to ask for a little more."
When you consider that SnG serves in the range of 8 to 10 people per session, the place isn't exactly making money. "I don't do it for the money," she told me. "If I can charge just barely more than it costs me, that's fine. I do it because I enjoy it."
Even though dessert usually isn't served, my meal was special since it was supposed to be the rogue restaurant's last. So after the plates of coq au vin were cleared away — most of them scraped completely clean — JLo got up and went to the kitchen to plate her dessert: chocolate croissant bread pudding.
"Does everyone want ice cream?" JLo asked from the nearby kitchen.
The response, of course, was a unanimous "yes."
She returned with bowls of sticky-warm bread pudding speckled with gobs of melted chocolate. On top of each helping was a scoop of vanilla ice cream melting slowly into the bowl.
"Oh my God, this is good," said Ashley, a Fort Lauderdale-based graphic designer who frequently eats at SnG.
Everyone agreed. The buttery croissants had absorbed the custard and become soft and sweet, while the melted chocolate throughout was divine. It was some of the best bread pudding I've ever tasted.
"Don't tell me you made the croissants too," I asked JLo.
"Yep. I put all the black vanilla flecks in the ice cream too," she joked.
Kidding aside, I asked JLo if she would want to own a fully licensed restaurant someday. "Absolutely," she said.
If that's her goal, running a rogue restaurant isn't a bad way to start. In cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, a fair number of chefs have made their break operating unlicensed eateries out of their homes. In Portland, Chef Michael Hebberoy and his wife, Naomi, started the restaurant Family Supper in their rented bungalow in 2001. A year later, Family Supper went legit and now serves communal table meals to upward of 50 per session. It's a trend that's continued all across the United States.
Despite the many positive attributes of the underground restaurant trend, there are plenty of good reasons why eateries must be licensed to operate. For one, each state requires that restaurants be inspected regularly to make sure they comply with health codes. Of course, there are also the issues of taxing and revenue as well as public safety concerns and liability. In Florida, the dangers of allowing restaurants to operate without any policing are very real. As New Times recently reported, half a dozen illegal restaurants — along with illegal slaughterhouses, gambling dens, and animal fighting rings — were shut down earlier this year in Florida's own wild frontier, Dade County's C-9 Basin.
But let's face it: There's a big distinction between rural establishments or vendors selling street food who operate to make a living and offer convenience and Squat-N-Gobble, which is a labor of love run by a foodie and catering mostly to fellow food connoisseurs and friends of friends. JLo is a wonderful hostess, a chef with true talent and the personal charm to back it up. Her kitchen and dining area (yes, her apartment) is spotlessly clean too. It could even be argued that the level of transparency at SnG in regard to cleanliness and preparation is way higher than at an ordinary restaurant. After all, everything is right there in front of you.
Best of all, at rogue restaurants like SnG, you're not just getting a meal but good company to go with it. Where else can you share such an intimate experience with groups of like-minded people? To sit and chat, to sip wine and enjoy a family-style meal like this, is honestly much more fun than a structured restaurant experience. Not to mention the homey quality of it all. As I sat and ate with JLo and company, I was reminded what it was like to sit around the dinner table with my own family, passing plates and bowls as we spent time together (and sometimes even asking for seconds — which plenty of us did with that delicious chocolate bread pudding).
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Although I didn't stick around too late into the evening, the seven of us did sit on JLo's back porch for a good while after eating. We talked and drank more and listened to a pretty great mix of indie-rock tunes to boot. If the restaurant thing doesn't work out in the long run, Squat-N-Gobble could have a future as a nightclub. "It usually turns into a dance party after enough wine," JLo joked.
Remember when I said this was to be SnG's final meal? Well, JLo has decided to keep the restaurant running on Wednesdays, doing what she calls "International Night."
"We do a different theme each week, like Turkish, Greek, or French," she says. "It allows me to experiment with cuisines I never have before, which is really fun."
That it was. I'll definitely be back.