ROAM IF YOU WANT TO

For Weekly SurgeApril 9, 2014 

“Honey, what’s for dinner?”

Most people answer that question with a look in the pantry, a trip to the supermarket or a favorite restaurant, or – in desperate situations – a quick turn via the drive-through at Mickey D’s.

For some adventurous Myrtle Beach area diners, however, the answer comes in the form of a gourmet dinner, and that’s only after a visit to a couple of local landmarks, a scavenger hunt, and maybe a three-legged race around a fountain with people they’ve never met before.

That’s the one-of-a-kind dining experience you can expect if you sign up for one of the monthly events hosted by the Roaming Table Society, a Grand Strand group devoted to providing a dinner adventure that benefits a good cause.

The Society’s motto is “Have Fun. Eat Well. Do Good.”

According to people who have experienced a Roaming Table event, the Society succeeds in doing all three.

“I attended their Valentine’s Day event and I couldn’t stop talking about it, I still can’t,” said Deanne Johnson, 44, owner of an advertising and graphic design company in Myrtle Beach. “We had the most amazing time talking and laughing with the other people we met. The location was gorgeous. The food was amazing. I’ve already convinced six other couples to sign up.”

The February evening she attended with friend Jim Stephens was not your standard dinner date by any means.

It started with a ride on the SkyWheel and, through a series of clues, led diners first to Starbucks inside the Market Common’s Barnes & Noble. There, they wrote their own Valentines using a method similar to the popular “Mad-libs” party game, and then finally were led to a romantic five-course meal in a historic home near Myrtle Beach.

Roaming Table events take place monthly and have become increasingly popular as word of mouth gets around the area. Only about 12 to 16 spaces are available each month, so it pays to book early. The next event, scheduled for Saturday sold out a few weeks ago, but seats are still available for the next meals on May 10 and June 14. To learn more or book a space, visit www.roamingtablesociety.com or call 231-0374.

This experience isn’t cheap. Prices average about $75 per person but vary depending on the monthly offering. The cost for May and June is $100 per person, and the price includes all of the lead-up activities as well as the meal and drinks.

A passion for good food and good causes

The Roaming Table concept that has enchanted Johnson and many others is the brainchild of Jess Sagun, 44, a native of Cheraw who moved to Myrtle Beach about 20 years ago.

Sagun, a self-confessed “foodie” who once worked as a sous-chef, also is committed to giving back to the community. Approximately five years ago, she founded the local non-profit Abiding Village, which offers a wide variety of arts classes and entrepreneurial education for young people considered as “under-resourced” or at-risk.

She had been discussing ways to generate revenue for the organization with a group of her friends who are also passionate about food, and the idea for a sort of “underground restaurant” concept came up.

For those who haven’t heard the term, underground restaurants have taken off around the world in recent years as a way for people to experience many different kinds of cuisine in a more intimate, alternative setting, without having to deal with the restraints and trappings of more formal dining establishments.

What Sagun and her friends envisioned, however, wasn’t exactly a restaurant. Instead, they wanted a way to make great meals that also were memorable events, culinary adventures that required diners to jump through a few fun hoops along the way.

In 2013, the Roaming Table Society was born.

“For lack of a better word, we were foodies who were also entrepreneurs and social-justice minded, and all of those elements came together in sort of a perfect storm,” Sagun said. “The Society is a way to generate income and meet the passions of people involved in the organization. By social standards, we are what is called an ‘underground’ or ‘pop up’ restaurant, but what we do is even more out there than that.”

Way beyond the dining room table

The Roaming Table concept can best be described as a way of deconstructing dinner.

It’s a style of dining that’s become increasingly popular in recent years as food lovers seek out new and exciting ways to experience meals. This generations’ foodies, essentially, aren’t just only after the next exciting dish, trendy seasoning or the perfect unusual wine or aperitif.

They’re also looking for ways to enjoy food that take them beyond the standard table-and-chairs in the family dining room or restaurant.

The battle cry of this kind of diner, basically, is “Location, location, location!”

It’s an era of meals on the move, seeking new taste experiences far from the standard brick-and-mortar setting of the neighborhood diner or even the trendiest five-star bistros a city has to offer.

Around the country, underground restaurants have foodies enjoying meals in all sorts of locations that often are announced only on Facebook pages, Twitter feeds or through private messages.

For other people, the progressive dinner has become a good way to thwart mealtime boredom.

In the past two decades, progressive dinners have become increasingly popular around the U.S. (They’re also big in the U.K., where the phenomenon is known as a “safari supper.”)

The concept started out as a neighborhood thing, a potluck supper with walking shoes. People get together and experience a three- or four-course dinner, with each course being prepared at a different person’s house.

Progressive dinners are now offered by professional chefs and caterers in a variety of locations.

Charleston’s Circa 1886 restaurant, for instance, has been offering a progressive Christmas dinner spread across three places in the historic downtown for more than 20 years, and it’s become one of the city’s most popular holiday culinary events.

The progressive concept has also become popular for charity events and restaurateurs seeking to help out a good cause. Barefoot Landing, for instance, is hosting a progressive meal, “A Night Out at Barefoot” tonight that will benefit North Strand Helping Hand.

People can sample different courses, including dessert and wine, at venues spread out around the shopping and entertainment complex, including Wild Wing Café, Fire Island Grille, Bully’s Pub and Grill and Wild Wing Café.

Roaming Table, as the brainchild of a group of people who all willingly accept the foodie label, wanted to take the idea of the non-traditional meal setting one step further.

What makes Roaming Table different is that it isn’t the courses that are spread out over different locations.

It’s that diners have to roam to different places to find out where the dinner itself is in the first place.

No two events are ever held at the same place. The roadmap for events spans not only the beach side of Horry and Georgetown counties, but also includes Aynor, Loris, and even eventual forays over the border into Marion County.

Roaming Table has hosted meals inside historic country homes and on the grounds of spacious properties near the Intracoastal Waterway.

Frequently, however, the venue is a little more offbeat. And that only adds to the fun.

One meal, for instance, took place in a farm field. Don’t worry – we’re not talking picnic tables set up in the middle of the crops, or dinner while straddling the seat of a John Deere tractor. In outdoor locations, dining and food prep takes place under tents.

In March, diners started their adventure by watching a YouTube video, then gathered clues in downtown Conway and at a scavenger hunt at a junk and antiques dealer off U.S. 701. They ended up at an ammunition supply warehouse near Loris that was promoted by the Society as a meal in an “international trade zone.”

Imagine the questions going through the minds of participants who started off their evening on the ocean side of the Waterway and then ended up heading out into the country. Were they perhaps venturing into a high-end dining version of “Children of the Corn?”

“We were kind of unsure when we pulled in because it looked kind of like an abandoned building, but then we saw Tiki torches and walked in the warehouse and saw a huge tent, heat lamps, an elaborate beautiful setup,” said Burgess resident Kelly Mason, who attended the March event with husband Dave Mason. “It ended up being a great location. We enjoyed the meal a lot. It was just a complete adventure.”

The how-to of roaming

If driving off into the night to chase down dinner in a farm field isn’t your thing, Roaming Table Society might not be for you.

The first thing you need to experience this meal is a sense of adventure.

This is probably not the best concept for the anal retentive diner, the culinary equivalent of Sheldon on “Big Bang Theory” who must eat the same thing at the same time every day, sit in the same chair at every meal, and/or can’t handle being in new places with people they may not know.

It also probably isn’t the right venue for somebody whose idea of fine cuisine is whatever Hot Pocket comes out of the freezer first. Even though Roaming formats vary from family-style meals to fine dining, the food is preparing using the same standards you would find in any of the area’s best restaurants, Sagun said.

What makes RTS so different is that not only is the location a secret, but so is the menu.

A Roaming Table experience works like so:

Diners sign up in advance through the Web site (www.roamingtablesociety.com) or by calling in a reservation. On the day before the event, they receive a text message or e-mail confirming their reservation.

Then, on the actual day of the meal, comes the first clue in the form of a text message that includes a semi-obscure hint about a location somewhere in the Grand Strand area. In some cases, such as the March event, diners are instructed to watch a YouTube video to get instructions or receive the first clue.

Once diners figure out where the first clue is guiding them, and arrive there, a volunteer liaison from RTS meets them and gives them directions for an activity they need to complete before moving on to the next location. By completing one or two more tasks, the diners discover where they are to go for dinner. Once they arrive there, they’re led inside by more volunteers who guide them to their tables.

Sound confusing and complicated? It’s not. The puzzles and tasks are challenging, not impossible. RTS volunteers set the whole thing up so people get an adventure and have to do little bit of work for their meal, but it’s all in fun.

Myrtle Beach contractor Rob Edwards attended an event a few months ago with his wife Jenny that started with a meeting near the old Myrtle Beach Pavilion area and ended up on the grounds of a home along the Intracoastal Waterway near Socastee. In between, there was a scavenger hunt that he said “got a bit competitive” but was always manageable.

“You cover some ground before you end up where you’re going for the meal, but they do a great job with setting up the clues,” Edwards said. “It would be easy for something like this to get disorganized and for people to get lost or upset, but they have everything set up so they’re communicating with you electronically throughout the process. They keep track of where everybody is.”

The tasks and challenges run the gamut, from the “Mad-libs” poetry challenge Edwards described to a sort of “three-legged race” around a Conway fountain that the March diners had to complete.

“We had to tie our legs to that of one of the other participants, then run around the fountain without stepping on a crack,” Mason said. “After that, we got instructions for an alphabet game we had to complete in the car.”

Past participants say the clues and the games don’t detract from the dining experience – instead, they say, they add to it.

Having to do some offbeat tasks as a way of “singing for your supper” leads to some good natured competition, helps to break the ice between strangers and also offers a fun way for reconnecting for couples, families or even groups of friends who haven’t had time together in a while.

“We’ve done a lot of high-end dining around this area, all the big restaurants in town, and this was as good if not better,” said Deb Kithianis, a music educator from Myrtle Beach who has experienced many of the area’s best bistros with husband Jeff Kithianis. The couple attended the Valentine’s Day RTS event and especially enjoyed composing the Valentines for each other at Barnes and Noble.

“I have a favorite restaurant, but we don’t go all that often because it’s often too loud to hear each other, “ Deb Kithianis said. “I want to be able to talk with my husband and hear what he has to say. Roaming Table gave us the chance to listen to each other and be together. It was a bonding experience. It’s like marriage therapy. You’re doing all this fun stuff together and figuring out things together and having fun.”

The point of all the adventure and intrigue is, of course, the food, and according to the diners Surge spoke to, it’s worth the wait.

Sagun and other organizers work with area chefs who they either recruit or who volunteer for the events, but area chef Paul Mangiofico is the main source for Roaming Table’s eclectic menus. Mangiofico is the executive chef for Roaming Table. He is a former Marine who received culinary training at Horry Georgetown Technical College. He owns Chef du Jour and had worked with restaurants, served as a personal chef and offered cooking classes around the Grand Strand.

People expecting some sort of bizarre box-lunch-on-the fly after they hear of the Roaming Table concept are dead wrong.

Past menus include items such as salmon rissole, grilled radicchio and romaine salad, a caramelized Vidalia onion bisque that received raves from several past diners, bourbon-braised beef short ribs, grilled quail with peach chutney, lobster and truffle mac and cheese, and desserts such as banana bread pudding with dark chocolate and caramel.

All these creations are especially notable because Mangiofico, who was the Executive Sous Chef at the Members Club at Grand Dunes from 2008-2011, and other volunteer cooks have to be prepared to work in roving kitchens set up at that month’s venue.

“Everywhere has its own specific set of challenges, especially when we just go out into a field or another outdoor location,” Sagun said. “We set up a tent and bring generators, heaters and the whole bit. No matter where we are, they’re going to get a fine dining experience.”

RTS also isn’t for people who want everything served at one time. Volunteer servers come out before each course and describe what the diners are about to eat.

“I think everybody would love the experience, except maybe somebody that prefers McDonald’s or someplace else where your food is rushed out to you,” Deb Kithianis said. “This experience is like going to any fine restaurant. Your food isn’t rushed. You wait for it, and then you taste it and you savor it.”

At the end of each evening, folks who signed up for Roaming Table also receive a reminder of why the whole thing is going on in the first place – the “Do Good” part of the Society’s motto. Sagun and others come out and tell everyone that proceeds from the event go to further the work of Abiding Village.

They describe the Abiding Village concept and what it does for area young people, and sometimes even read a letter from one of the young people who has benefited from the nonprofit’s work.

“That absolutely is one of the best parts of the whole Roaming Table experience,” Rob Edwards said. “Everybody can appreciate and latch onto the idea that everything they’re doing is for Abiding Village. You’re enjoying yourself and serving folks at the same time. That’s the ultimate goal.”

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