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Spanish Dining to Delight All but the Taxman

Joff Lee | Photolibrary | Getty Images

On a secluded street in Spain, in a dimly lit basement, Mikio, a Japanese-Chilean filmmaker, restaurateur and sometime professional clown, warns a small group of diners to clap raucously and sing "Happy Birthday!" should the police barge into his clandestine restaurant, Nikkei.

Mikio, 39, is determined to create the illusion of a private gathering of friends at his postmodern speakeasy. The basement is decorated with black-and-white photographs of his grandparents. Even a toothbrush is displayed in the bathroom. He runs the place off the books and takes only cash. "Please don't use my last name," he said, smiling nervously. The owner of the space, an independent film company, has no idea what he is up to, he said.

Economic hardship has inspired a full range of clandestine entrepreneurship in Spain. The combination of higher taxes and unemployment has pushed desperate Spaniards to convert their apartments and underused lofts and warehouses into jazz clubs, hair salons, restaurants and even flamenco halls. The venues typically have no listed addresses and are found through word of mouth or on Facebook and Twitter.

But underground restaurants seem to be among the most popular among the clandestine offerings, and though they are not new in Barcelona, or many other cities around the world, their purveyors say they are providing a needed refuge in a country with 25 percent unemployment where even Michelin-starred restaurants have been forced to close under economic pressure.

Indeed, Mikio said he got the idea for Nikkei, which opened last year, when he lived a few years ago in Cuba, where dining at paladares, or underground restaurants in peoples' homes, was a popular way to bypass the authorities and make some money.

"To begin with I did it for fun and to make extra money and because people need innovative low-cost options in a bad economy," said Mikio, a wiry and jovial man who heralded each new course by ringing a loud bell made of metal from his family's armament factory back in Japan. "But I prefer to think of it as a social gathering rather than a business."

The missing revenue from those who do not pay taxes may amount to as much as 37 billion euros, or about $50 billion, economists say, depriving Spain's debt-ridden government of much-needed reserves. Quantifying the numbers of these businesses is difficult since they are, by definition, underground. But economists estimate that Spain's "black" economy may be as much as a fifth of its gross domestic product.

Beyond avoiding taxes, Mikio said he was able to keep the prices low by buying products in bulk from friends at local wholesale food markets and limiting his portions. On a recent night, the place was crammed with about 18 people. Guests included the fishmonger who had sold him the fish for his sushi (she got a free meal).

The assembled diners could barely contain their glee at the price. A sumptuous but minimalist nine-course Catalan-Japanese fusion meal — including Japanese dumplings, a tropical soup made of pomegranate, ginger and sunflower seeds and a smallish crisis-size portion of sushi — came to just 23 euros.

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Not all such clandestine venues skirt paying taxes, however. Some like La Contrasenya — in a bohemian working-class neighborhood of Barcelona called Poble Nou — say they decided to go underground for the sake of generating intrigue and cachet to lure increasingly fickle, penny-pinching consumers. That also seems to be the inspiration for Urban Secrets, a clandestine network that offers secret evenings at venues across the city.

On a recent night at La Contrasenya ("password" in Spanish), a graffiti-covered door slid open after guests whispered the password, "pumpkin," into the buzzer. They were then ushered by a waif with peroxide-blond hair into an industrial car elevator that took them two floors up to a moodily lit atelier transformed into an elegant makeshift restaurant filled with geometric paintings.

The diners — there were just two tables in the place — included several writers, a teacher and a photographer. The teacher, Ferran Viladevall, said he was drawn by the fresh ingredients, moderate prices and feeling of spontaneity, as well as by the chef, Angela Vinent, a former public relations executive-turned artist (the art on the walls was hers), who once wrote about the aftermath of Franco years before trading in her pen for a kitchen knife.

"If it wasn't for the crisis I wouldn't be doing this," said Ms. Vinent, who started La Contrasenya last year in hopes of supplementing her income and attracting frugal-minded foodies. "People come for many reasons, because the food is good, because it is reasonable, and because it is cool."

Ms. Vinent — chatting warmly with guests when not hunched over the stove — served a hearty and varied home-cooked five-course "crisis" meal — including marinated tuna, cream of pumpkin curry, freshly baked bread drenched in homemade olive oil from her olive tree in the Spanish Pyrnes, mango sorbet and good Rioja — all for 25 euros. (The waif, Helena, who turned out to be her daughter, was the waitress.)

Not least because she pays taxes, Ms. Vincent seemed less concerned about being discovered by the authorities, while at Nikkei, Mikio looked outside with unnerving frequency, fearing that his secret culinary destination would be exposed.

Still, he said, he is becoming more relaxed. The place is so in demand, he said, that he even counts some bargain-hunting police officers among his customers.

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