The Secret Supper

Surprises delight diners at Sub Rosa Supper Club.

Photography by Kyle Petrozza

He was a bold man who first ate an oyster, Jonathan Swift famously wrote. One could forgive inland diners in Harrisonburg for passing up the briny grey nuggets at a recent dinner. Instead, when served Tangier Island bivalves with a miso, shallot, and mirin mignonette, several first-timers eyed them, shrugged, and tossed them back to discover they were pretty tasty. Same for the grilled octopus tentacles a few courses later.

Such is the power of the Sub Rosa Supper Club, where founders Kirsten Moore and Jennifer Sodikoff lead Harrisonburg-area diners through a wonderland of unexpected menus, creative themes, and surprise locations. The evening is designed to encourage community, sharing, and adventure by introducing diners to new foods and unexplored settings in their hometown. 

There’s just one catch—it’s all secret. 

Rockfish with ginger and scallions.

Or at least a complete surprise, which is what guests love about this pop-up experience. For each event, Moore posts nothing more than an upcoming time and date, usually one every other month, via her social media channels. She doesn’t share menu or location details. A few weeks later, when the 20 to 30 advance tickets go on sale, they disappear within hours, sometimes minutes. The morning of the event, Moore sends an e-mail to guests disclosing simply an address. 

At the appointed hour, guests arrive at a surprise location that has been transformed for the evening into a themed event. The setting, decorations, and menu coordinate to tell a food story—a smokehouse dinner, for example, or new Nordic, or the late Anthony Bourdain’s favorite street food. “Sometimes the idea comes from finding out there is a great space we can use,” Moore says. “Or a trip one of us took, or a chef we like.” 

Sub Rosa Supper Club founders Jennifer Sodikoff and Kirsten Moore.

Moore and Sodikoff launched Sub Rosa three years ago with an Italian-themed dinner in a downtown Harrisonburg photography studio. They went on to host dinners in locations as varied as a commercial cannery, a metal storage container, a yoga studio, a log cabin, and a brewery. “We were in an airplane hangar, and they even had a plane fly over,” remembers guest Denise Dean Shifflett of one dinner. “We were able to view all of Rockingham County and the city of Harrisonburg. Kirsten and Jen were in the old-style airline stewardess outfits, with the scarf.” Servers even passed out candy cigarettes. 

Moore didn’t dream up these fun and games overnight. She slowly grew into it, starting with an annual themed Labor Day party. She started a catering company in 2010, focusing on special events, but its success led to a bit of burnout. “I got to this place where I hardly had a weekend free in the summer with all the weddings and holidays,” she says. “I craved getting the time back, and getting back to smaller and more meaningful connections around a dinner table.” 

Moore backed away from catering to focus on running her community coworking space in Harrisonburg, The Hub Coworking. But she still had food ideas in the back of her mind. Did she want to open a small restaurant? That seemed like too big of a commitment. Perhaps a small pop-up to benefit charities? Nothing stuck. 

Enter Jen, literally. Moore’s business partner at the Hub, Sodikoff arrived at work one day and sparked inspiration. “She walked in here like Malibu Barbie, with big sunglasses, carrying all these shopping bags. I asked her what she was doing,” Moore says. “She had just found some fun party stuff. She said, ‘I like styling events, but I don’t want to do weddings, I just like doing dinner tables.’” 

A partnership was born. 

Ramen with quail eggs and littleneck clams.

Moore handles the food, while Sodikoff styles the experience. “Jen and I have this great idea, and we have 15 minutes of conversation about it,” Moore says. “Then we each go our own way and show up at the event to make it happen.” 

The carefully curated experiences set this pop-up apart, but the food is just as adventurous as the locations. For the Nordic dinner, for example, Moore made rømmegrøt—a dish that’s basically sour cream and flour. “I was like, how could it possibly be good?” she says. “We served it in a little bowl, with strawberry vinegar and shaved cured venison. The oohs and aahs were so rewarding. Here’s this thing you think can’t possibly be good, and then it’s a lot of people’s favorite dish of the night. I love finding the dish that people haven’t heard of or tried.” 

Just as with the oysters, Sub Rosa guests trust enough to try pretty much anything. “Any dish that comes through, I don’t care what it has in it, I’m one who is going to try it even if I don’t usually eat that,” says Shifflett, a longtime friend of Moore’s who attended the first Sub Rosa Supper Club three years ago, and half a dozen since. “There’s just nothing like it in Harrisonburg.” 

Andrea Zehr Meredith has been to a handful of the dinners, where she has also tried several new dishes. “I wouldn’t have ordered octopus on a restaurant menu,” she says. “I’m an adventurous eater, and I watch a lot of cooking shows, but they say octopus is super hard to prepare and can be tough. But it was there, so of course you try it, and it was incredible.” 

The creative food and venue invite guests to connect over the shared adventure. Meeting like-minded creative types is what many of the guests treasure most. “It’s the food and the venue, but also the people around the table,” Shifflett says. “The cool thing is that while there are some familiar faces, there are always new faces. That’s what I appreciate and look forward to.” 

And that’s really the whole point, according to Moore. The name “sub rosa” refers to a Middle Ages custom of carving a rose into the ceiling of dining halls. Any conversation or transaction conducted “under the rose” was sworn to secrecy. Sharing a meal was considered a sacred time for forging bonds that couldn’t be broken. “The whole thing around food is that community, that gathering and interaction,” Moore says. “That’s way more important to me than anything I can cook.”

Pop in to a Pop-up

The appeal of pop-ups is their ephemeral quality. Chefs use a pop-up’s flexibility to collaborate with fellow chefs, to explore a cuisine or cooking style that’s different from their home restaurant, or to test the market and raise funds for a new concept. For that reason, pop-ups are usually elusive one-time events, with little advance notice. They can be hard to find and quickly gone. Here are the best tips for tracking pop-ups in your area. 

1. Follow the chef. Find out who the chefs are at your favorite restaurants and follow them on social media. Because the chef is the central person planning a pop-up, he or she is sometimes the only one promoting it.

2. Find former pop-ups. Does a restaurant or other location near you host occasional pop-ups? Ask if they have a mailing list or if they post notifications on their social media.

3. Talk to foodies. Ask your friends or family members who always seem to know the hot new restaurant. They’ll likely be the first to hear about off-the-radar food events.

Know that pop-ups require payment in advance. You may or may not have food options—many pop-ups have a fixed menu. And since it’s a one-time dinner, there are no guarantees that every dish will be perfect, but they will definitely be exciting.

This article originally appeared in our June 2019 issue.

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