Nfld. & Labrador·First Person

For your mouths only: The rise of private dinner parties in St. John's

Reality check: private dining in St. John's has prices comparable to eating three courses at a nice downtown restaurant. Small wonder, writes Gabby Peyton, that the pandemic has encouraged people to try the trend.

Hiring a chef for a home-based service carries the same price as 3 courses at a nice restaurant

Many of the city's chefs have been on the private dining scene for a long time, writes Gabby Peyton. (Submitted by Gabby Peyton)

For a lot of people, private dining evokes images of white-gloved butlers and footmen simultaneously placing cloche-covered dishes in front of wealthy aristocrats while they guffaw about the lower classes.

Others might imagine tech bros on their private yacht, the champagne glass always full and a private chef slogging away in the galley.

Reality check: these days, this isn't the case, even here in St. John's.

While many think private dining sits at an inaccessible price, many of the city's chefs who have been on the private dining scene for a long time — not to mention a burgeoning roster of newcomers — are offering meals with prices comparable to eating three courses at a nice downtown restaurant.

With COVID-19 restrictions in place since March of last year in one form or another, dining at a restaurant is still rather daunting for many, especially considering the terrifying ebb and flow of caseloads here in Newfoundland and Labrador. This dining-dread, along with COVID limiting eating in restaurants to a bubble of no more than six people, more diners are hosting private dinner parties.

And they aren't as expensive as people think — some are only $50 a person for a three-course meal.

A take on an old favourite: chef Chris Mercer made this grilled cheese platter with spicy tomato soup for a private dinner. (Chris Mercer/Submitted by Gabby Peyton)

The bubble banquet won't break the bank

"I think it's a misconception, really. I've found a lot of people seem to have the perception that you need to be wealthy to do this kind of thing," said chef Chris Mercer, who fell into the private dining sphere between restaurant gigs.

"But I've been seeing everyday people pooling money together. If you work it out costwise it's not really costing you much more," Mercer said. 

After leaving Adelaide Oyster House last year to become the chef at the not-yet-opened Brewdock, COVID happened. Along with the normal delays that accompany any opening, it has left him without a restaurant kitchen.

Over the holidays he started offering private dining, and found his stride. Mercer offers up small dinner parties consisting of three or four courses like falafel with whipped feta, Caribbean crispy fried mackerel or shrimp and avocado toast, for about $65 per person.

"If you think about a meal in a restaurant, you get an app, a main, a dessert and a drink — you're paying more than that, probably $100 or more. If anything, it's a bargain depending on what you're looking for," said Mercer.

This is Mercer's shrimp toast with avocado. (Submitted by Chris Mercer)

Chef Stephen Quinton also pivoted to private dining in St. John's because of COVID-19.

He started Q's Barbecue Catering in 2016, offering whole pig roasts and southern-style buffets for large gatherings like weddings, but now focuses on offering a similarly economical option for smaller parties.

"This time last year, I had a full summer of weddings, then lost them all. But the 100-person party is no more, people are scaling it down," said Quinton.

"For my business model, a lot of what I used to do was pig roasts and buffet style so I was always a good economical choice for brides and grooms because a pig can feed a lot of people."

Both chefs work with their customers on menu options. In addition to working around dietary restrictions, the chefs create menus based on the customer's price range and culinary desires instead of going the traditional route, in which caterers have a few set menus for diners to choose from. The collaborative nature of this menu creation has proved to be a silver lining in private dining for Quinton and Mercer.

A break in the clouds 

While some chefs have turned off the stove for private dinners, others, like Quinton and Mercer, are heating up in the new-to-them realm.

"It's a good option because I think a lot of people are wary of going to restaurants, or public places in general, especially if they have an immune disorder. It's on your own terms, you can just have a dinner party with your own bubble and not worry about interacting with anyone else," said Mercer.

"But the neat thing about it is that it gave me a way to research and work on dishes I want to do at the restaurant later on so I picked up some ideas from that," explained Mercer.

Quinton has also been able to use the private dining pivot to his advantage.

"Now that buffets aren't there, you just can't fill up the trough and walk away anymore. Everything has to be individually plated and served table service," said Quinton.

Hosting smaller dinner parties has allowed Quinton to grow as a chef and as a caterer, pushing him to up his game with composed dishes and elevated cuisine, all the while keeping his style of cooking. There are more poke bowls and less pulled pork on the menu now, but he always does the oysters because of his experience at Adelaide Oyster House.

Stephen Quinton takes part in Chefs for Trails in Conception Bay South in 2018. (Submitted by Gabby Peyton)

"I always try to incorporate fresh oysters into the party. I usually start out saying, 'OK, I'm going to teach everyone here how to shuck their own oysters,'" explained Quinton, who delights in adding the showmanship and intimacy of private dinners to his repertoire.

Chef Bob Arniel is a familiar face in the private dining sphere of St. John's. Also known as the Chef to Go, he has been offering private dinners since 1997. For him, the COVID pivot has been more of a boomerang.

"We started off the private events in people's houses or our own private dining room which was the bulk of our business, but cooking classes became more popular and has been the busiest part of the business for the last 10 years," said Arniel. "Until last March, that is. Now it seems that everyone is looking either for a private dining room or to have events at home, just like 1995."

Arniel charges between $110 and $120 per person, which includes taxes and gratuity, for a five-course meal and sees the silver lining in COVID-friendly private dinners — you can bring your own booze.

Chef Stephen Quinton at Tasty Trails in Holyrood last summer. (Submitted by Stephen Quinton)

"People enjoy being able to enjoy the company of good friends without outside interruption. They can control the environment and pace of the evening, not to mention those who like fine wines can enjoy them from their own cellars," said Arniel.

Restaurants jumping on discreet dining experiences

With the restaurant industry in constant flux, many restaurants are also pivoting to offer their cuisine in a COVID-friendly way. Restaurants like Waterwest Kitchen & Meats have offered up their whole dining room for bubbles to have a private dining experience, while others are offering private chef dinners like Boca on Water Street.

Quinton shows off a platter of moose cheese steaks. (Submitted by Stephen Quinton)

"We decided to offer chef at home to help with the loss of business we, like many restaurants, experienced from capacity restrictions," said Boca's chef, Grigor Bersinski, who saw an opportunity to keep business going.

"It's another outlet to get new customers who may have never been to Boca."

Bersinski says they have seen quite a bit of business from the chef-at-home dining experience since they began offering it in October — he estimates they've done between 25 and 30 private dinners since. Their menu sits at $125 per person, which includes sangria, charcuterie, five courses and dessert (taxes are included, gratuity is not).

Would you host a private dinner?

Is 2021 the year you host your first private dinner party? These chefs seem to think so.

Even with the recent lockdown, they were optimistic about the popularity of private dinners.

When things changed, Arniel decided to pivot — again — to a different model. "Crazy times indeed," he said. 

For those wintry weeks, the Chef to Go really was to go, offering a curbside dining experience to his guests, with an ever-changing three-course menu. One meal showcased the flavours of Jamaica with jerk chicken, scallion flatbread and bread pudding.

Bersinski said Boca hopes to continue with the private dinners.

"But it will depend on how busy we are with the pedestrian mall being open, which we saw great success with this past summer. We also offer a boat tour with sangria and charcuterie in the summer," he said.

So the private dinner party will live on in St. John's — and th chefs will just keep rolling with the changes. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gabby Peyton is a freelance food writer in St. John’s.

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