03/28/2008 02:45 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Speakeasy Restaurants: The Most Exclusive Tables In Town

They say that in the early 1990s there was a secret restaurant in Manhattan, in an apartment on the 31st floor of a Hell's Kitchen building whose lobby was accessible only through a porn video store. The makeshift eatery--no license, no health inspection--specialized in authentic Sri Lankan cuisine and had all the allure of urban myth: grungy milieu; a whiff of the illicit; the cachet of an address divulged to few.

In other countries, secret restaurants have flourished for years: In Cuba, mom-and-pop paladares are an alternative to state-run eateries; in Hong Kong, si fang cai offer elaborate home-cooked meals. Recently the phenomenon has taken off in America, with under-the-radar establishments popping up in San Francisco, Seattle, New York, and Boston. Operated out of people's homes, by enthusiasts with no professional cooking experience or by chefs moonlighting from their regular gigs, these secret restaurants aren't terribly secret. A bit of creative googling will lead you quickly to outposts like Underground Inc. in Des Moines, Iowa, or Shady's Cafe in Penland, North Carolina. Still, they form a rapidly expanding and important ad hoc culinary underground.

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