On a drizzly Monday night, a small line began to form outside Russet restaurant on the 1500 block of Spruce Street. The BYOB, normally closed on the first day of the week, was gearing up to host a packed house, making diners wait until 7 on the dot.
Once doors opened, the cozy restaurant filled each of it 70 seats with a member of the Tasting Collective, Philly's newest dining club, which since its first event in October has grown to more than 300 members.
Every other week, the members-only club brings foodies to a different restaurant for a $50, six-course meal, served family-style and featuring experimental, off-the-menu dishes. During each dinner, the lead chef comes out from the kitchen to share stories about how certain dishes came to be and to give insight into both his/her culinary background and day-to-day life. At the start of all meals, diners are given a rating card and are asked to evaluate each course on a scale of one to five. They are encouraged to leave comments, too.
"It's essentially an anti-Yelp," Tasting Collective founder Nat Gelb said. "Chefs like getting feedback, but they don't want something that will damage their brand. This presents an opportunity to get constructive criticism in a way that won't live online forever, and the restaurants really value that."
Gelb launched the first branch of the Tasting Collective in spring 2016 in New York, where membership now tops 1,500. Gelb said he was driven by a desire to create a more personal connection as part of eating out at a restaurant.
"When I moved from rural New York to N.Y.C., I started exploring all of these incredible restaurants but realized I was missing something — that human element to the experience," he said.
Gelb said he rarely dined out when he was growing up, but that his parents were avid cooks. They made the experience of food feel very personal for him, driving a desire for more from the chefs at the restaurants he was visiting.
"To stay afloat, places have to turn as many covers as they can, and so there isn't really any room for the chefs to ever leave the kitchen," Gelb said. "I wanted to find a way to foster more interaction between the person eating the food and the person making it in a way that would be beneficial to both."
Today, the club helps fill dining room seats across New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, Austin, and San Francisco on nights when restaurants would otherwise be closed or considerably slow. (This means club dinners most often fall on Sundays, Mondays, or Tuesdays.) The Tasting Collective guarantees it will fill every seat at the restaurant, and all proceeds go directly to the owners. The dining club makes its money by selling annual memberships, with prices that vary by city. The current yearly cost in Philadelphia is $99.
"Part of our mission was to make chef-led dining experiences accessible to people that want it. It might not be cheap, but it's a good deal and includes this rare opportunity to hear chefs' stories straight from the source," Gelb said.
The $50-per-dinner price tag excludes drinks, tax, and tip, but nearly always includes six different courses, which are most often split 50-50 between new dishes the chef wants to try and favorites already in rotation on the menu.
"We're also casual — we choose acclaimed restaurants, but our vibe is much more this convivial, party atmosphere vs. this fancy setting where your plates and utensils are cleared after every course," Gelb said.
At Russet, where twentysomething and sixtysomething couples, coworkers, mother-daughter duos, and solo diners all interacted with one another across tables, the social aspect of the dining club rang loud — so loud that the decibel level in the restaurant required nearly shouting from person to person.
"For people that are fairly new to the city like me, and single, it's nice to have an organized dinner like this at a fine-dining spot where it's typically all couples," said 58-year-old Laurianne Greene, a sommelier who arrived by herself.
Moments earlier, Greene had uncorked a bottle of wine and offered a glass to a 31-year-old filmmaker, a stranger only minutes before, who was seated beside her.
Russet was Tasting Collective's third Philly location (Will BYOB was the first, Cadence the second). The night brought about a room full of constant chatter, with people sharing their analyses of the evening's dishes, including a brown butter sweet potato gnudi with matsutake mushrooms and hand-cut pappardelle with smoked pork ragu. Scrupulous debates about whether the pappardelle was cooked a minute too long or whether the fourth-course arctic char involtini was paired with just a little too much braised fennel brought an honest criticism to the table, as well as a display of how truly passionate about food people can be in the company of like-minded folks.
"The community piece is the best part, getting to have a shared experience over food — it's an important aspect of any culture," said Catherine Carrington, who attended on her own after hearing about the club through a friend. "The food was good, but it's the overall experience that makes me want to come back."
Whenever possible, the Tasting Collective works with restaurants to create a communal seating environment. Two-seaters and spots at the bar are in the mix, too, and are available by request to those seeking a more private experience.
"Tickets sell out usually within two to three days," Gelb said. "We don't want our members to become worried about getting tickets, so if an event sells out really quickly, we'll chat with the restaurant about adding a second or a third day."
Throughout the evening, guests are invited to submit questions for a Q&A during the final course. At Russet, that meant chef Andrew Wood held the mic while guests savored a warm chocolate budino dessert topped with a cognac-hinted cream.
Emerging from the kitchen in his black, pinstriped apron, lightly spattered with the offerings of the night, Wood addressed topics ranging from his process for conceptualizing a new dish to his favorite San Francisco Mexican restaurant (Mission Taqueria) to a picture of what date night looks like for him and wife Kristin in Philly.
"I have two kids — ages 3 and 11 — so date night for us is more like date hour, and it's probably just spaghetti, and we're always making it," Wood said, drawing a laugh.
The Tasting Collective heads to Marigold Kitchen next; future locations remain secret.
"Chefs' calendars are very unpredictable," Gelb said. "We don't want to promise our members a restaurant, and then it ends up changing, so we only announce one at a time."
Once a restaurant is announced, however, the night's full menu goes online so members can decide whether the multicourse lineup entices them enough to attend.
Members also get access to what Gelb calls a "digital concierge" — a section on the Tasting Collective website featuring perks at participating restaurants, like a complimentary dessert at Cadence, and discounts on various items sold online. Members are also eligible to attend dining events in any other city where they are offered.
Next year, Gelb plans to launch the Tasting Collective in eight more cities.
"Philly was a no-brainer as our fourth destination," he said. "It's a city with a restaurant scene that's thriving and continuing to blow up. In fact, when we launched at Will BYOB, the ratings people wrote on the rating cards were the highest across the board that we've seen at any restaurant in all of our cities."