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On a chilly November night in west Toronto, strangers make their way down a bumpy, semi-industrial side street into Cheese Boutique Bottega. Although it’s after business hours, complimentary fine wine and cheese is passed around the bustling store as a TV fireplace crackles above.
To the uninitiated, this event looks like a typical office Christmas party. But the event is actually one hosted by Charlie’s Burgers, a secret dining experience in Toronto.
Underground dining clubs were first popularized in Latin America at least three decades ago. Guests pay a fee to attend a dinner with other patrons they have never met before. The location is kept a secret until days, or even hours before the event begins. There, guests are treated to multi-course meals that can be served by anyone from a home cook to, in Charlie’s Burgers’ case, award-winning international chefs.
“When we hosted our first dinner in 2009, we were the first club of this type in North America,” said Franco Stalteri, co-founder of Charlie’s Burgers. “We just wanted to host dinners with great chefs at great venues.”
Many in the food scene agree that they did: the club was awarded the third-best new food experience in the world by Food & Wine magazine in 2010. They have held dinners with chefs recognized by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants and the Michelin Guide, giving them the freedom to create menus they would otherwise be unable to serve at their restaurants.
Just what does this creative freedom look like? “We worked with a chef who was able to create a menu based on Arctic cuisine that he had been wanting to make for many years,” Franco said. “Another chef was able to create a 100-course meal with new food arriving at the table every couple of minutes. We even stirred up some controversy in 2010 by allowing a chef to serve horse meat.”
Franco says allowing chefs to create to their heart’s content is the main ingredient in maintaining the authenticity of the world-famous dining experience. “From the beginning, the ethos was to throw private dinners inspired by chefs’ creativity. No strings attached.”
Along with chefs being able to test new menus, secret supper clubs like Charlie’s Burgers give their attendees a unique and exclusive experience that they can share with others.
“Beyond what a typical restaurant offers, secret dining clubs give patrons ‘social currency,’” says Matthew Philp, an expert in food marketing at Toronto Metropolitan University. “Social currency is simply something that makes you appear interesting, fun, exciting, and unique to others.
“Sharing your unique and exclusive experiences with others accomplishes the general goal to self-enhance. This is a big part of the draw of these clubs.”
Charlie’s Burgers’ is as popular as ever. As longtime attendee Karima Laghari takes in the aroma of her glass of prosecco, she comments on how familiar the events feel from years ago, “This is my first CB event since the beginning of COVID. It’s great to see it hasn’t changed, it still feels like I’m in on the secret.”
Along with authenticity, Franco says he aims for perfection at Charlie’s Burgers events. “We spend months, sometimes even years, planning these culinary events,” he says. “If we can’t get a chef or an ingredient for a night we’re planning, we simply won’t hold the event.”
On the back lane of Cheese Boutique Bottega, event-goers gather to chat about their nights. With new tastes in hand purchased at a discounted “members only” price, they make the slow trek back to their cars with a secret memory they can share.
New connections, new tastes and new experiences. That’s the secret that people keep coming back for.