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Page last updated at 08:24 GMT, Friday, 15 May 2009 09:24 UK
A restaurant in your living room

By Luke Walton
Today programme

Bernice Saltzer and husband John
Bernice and John - restaurateurs in their own home

The venue is a modern, red-brick house in the former pit village of Murton, near Sunderland.

It is not an obvious spot for a foodies' night-out, but squeezed inside the living room, around two large tables, are 12 guests who have each spent £15 each to eat four courses of homemade Jewish food.

This is one of a growing number of so-called underground restaurants that are springing up around the country.

The idea is simple. An amateur cook prepares and serves food for members of the public, usually for a small charge.

The host gets the glory, while the diners get a meal that is authentic and distinctive, at a fraction of restaurant prices.

Home cooking

Tonight, Bernice Saltzer is preparing a chicken soup, beef and vegetable stews as well as an almond and fruit pastry for dessert.

Pudding is served
Pudding is served - a night of home cooking comes to an end

Meanwhile, her husband John peels the potatoes and complains about being the "waiter, waitress and chief washer-upper".

A few minutes later, the first of six, mostly middle-aged, couples, arrive for dinner. The conversation starts off a little stiff and polite. But as wine and food starts flowing, things warm up.

"I'm doing all traditional Jewish dishes. The sort of thing that probably none of the people who are coming today will have ever tried before," says Bernice.

"It's quite interesting to get the opportunity to let complete strangers - who are not your friends and who you may never see again - to be honest about your food.

"So that's quite exciting, if slightly terrifying."

Open house

Bernice and John are one of 10 families who have opened their doors as part of the Eat Newcastle Gateshead food festival.

They come from different culinary traditions, among them Nigerian, Bosnian and Indian.

There is also a Geordie meal on offer, with locally-sourced produce and pease pudding.

Festival director Simon Preston sees it as a chance for amateur cooks to show off the food they would normally make for friends and relatives.

"It's a great opportunity for people to try amazing food but also to meet people, and to have an unforgettable experience," he says.

The original underground restaurants were across the Atlantic.

"The inspiration came from the Cuban Paladares, which opened all over Cuba in people's houses in the 1970s and 1980s, and then in the 1990s really took off when the government realised it was something they could license and make money out of."

Diners at the underground restaurant
Underground diners look forward to some home cooking

Simon says something similar has spread to Britain.

"Certainly in the UK the idea of a home restaurant is popping up all over the place now," he says.

"And perhaps with the economy being the way it is, people are looking to doing things without spending lots of money."

Good value may be one reason why the festival sold its tickets for the underground restaurants within 24 hours.

The people who bought them could choose what style of food they would be eating, but only found out where they were going the day before.

Eating with strangers

According to the diners I spoke to in Bernice's cosy front-room, that element of mystery is also one of the attractions.

So too is the chance to get an insider's perspective on a different culinary tradition.

So between courses, Bernice chatted to her guests about recipes and their history.

Meat after the diners have descended
The household dog is looking forward to a good supper

Her guests' verdict on the night? "I had a brilliant time. Wonderful food. The chicken soup was super. Very, very warm and friendly," said one of the diners, while others nodded in agreement.

The experience of eating around a table with complete strangers is not for everyone.

But for fans of the underground restaurant it is part of the thrill. In fact, the only one not having a good time at Bernice and John's, was the couple's fluffy and very friendly dog, Ollie.

He bounced into the dining area during starters in the hope of a treat or two. But having sniffed everyone's feet he soon found himself exiled to an upstairs bedroom, without so much as a morsel.

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