Meet at 12 Regents Place at 5pm.
“You will need to be dressed in bright clothes. You must bring something that makes noise.”
These anonymous instructions appear in my inbox four days before I’m set to pay my first visit to Birmingham’s Secret Dining Society.
And on a lazy Sunday afternoon my dinner date and I venture out into the unknown, stopping en route to pick up a pair of whistles from a Sparkbrook hardware shop.
“Where will we go? What will we do? Who else will be there?” he demands as we wander through the Jewellery Quarter in search of our meeting place.
Of course, I don’t have any answers. It’s a secret.
The Secret Dining Society started eight years ago when four foodies gathered for dinner at a friend’s house.
Born from an enjoyment of sharing good food in good company, with a few unexpected twists thrown in for good measure, the idea grew into an irregular run of events, with news of another peculiar dining experience spreading across the grapevine every few months.
“In the first year it was catering only to friends,” says Carl Finn, the society’s head honcho.
“Back then Facebook wasn’t as big as it is now so news spread by word of mouth.
“If you knew me, or knew someone who knew me, you’d get your money to me and your name would go on a little list.
“But over the course of the years we’ve probably had about 500 people come to about 20 events.”
Tickets for tonight’s event, at £20, were sold online.
Three years ago Carl launched the Soul Food Project, a trailblazer in Birmingham, taking lovingly crafted burgers, pies and slow-cooked gumbo to venues and events around the city, revolutionising the city’s pub grub offerings at The Victoria and Kings Heath’s Hare and Hounds.
His side project, the more exclusive SDS, tags a one-word theme to each event, giving diners a hint of what may lie in store.
I try to describe what I’ve heard about the previous events to my curious dinner date but the wacky scenario of foraging in a public park (SDS Camp) only makes him fret.
“Will there be audience participation?” he asks. “Well... possibly,” I say as he shudders.
Turning a street corner, we know we’ve arrived at our destination when we see a growing crowd of brightly dressed strangers lining the street.
We are each handed a small brown paper bag, containing a handkerchief and four poker chips, as we join the back of the queue, which grows and grows until around 200 of us, in multi-coloured attire, fill this little Brummie backstreet.
Our £1 plastic whistles are put to shame as we spot one man sporting a hands-free harmonica around his neck, while another lugs around a didgeridoo. A woman walks down the street clutching a saucepan and wooden spoon, while a new gaggle arrive armed with bicycle bells, football rattles and kazoos.
This is hipster heaven. A couple in front of us are discussing theories of political philosophy, every third person sports an SLR, and I have never seen so many brogues in one place.
But there’s a warmth to this gathering, the age range is surprisingly wide and I’m left wondering how half the people here ever heard about this event in the first place.
Today’s theme, “SDS Funeral”, is brought to life when our leader arrives brandishing a loudhailer and explaining we’ll be making a New Orleans-style funeral procession through the streets to our destination.
Carrying umbrellas and waving our handkerchiefs in a rainbow-coloured cacophony, we weave through the Jewellery Quarter following a six-piece brass band as a stream of dog walkers and bus passengers double-take in disbelief.
“The whole idea,” says Carl “is to take any expectations away from the food experience.
“It’s about taking away a menu from someone and giving trust to the people who make your food or serve your drinks.
“And we want to give a theatrical element on top of that. It’s really just to have fun and experiment.”
Our destination tonight is The Church Inn, a corner pub in Great Hampton Street, Hockley, and Carl’s newest project.
Last year he started hosting covert pop-up events in the unused pub, serving French cuisine on intimate “Allo Allo” French Resistance-style evenings, and specialist rum concoctions at its pop-up cocktail bar.
In a similar vein to the Secret Dining Society, only those who knew to ring the front doorbell were granted entry.
Teaming up with Leicester-based brewery Everards, he has given this traditional Birmingham boozer a £500,000 renovation to turn it into a haven for top quality food and drink.
And tonight is his chance to show off the result.
Here, diners exchange their poker chips for pulled pork baps (which are in huge demand), bowls of spicy deep south jambalaya, craft beers and colourful, quirky cocktails.
For the remainder of the evening throngs of secret diners pack the sunny roof terrace, drool over the food and drinks in the lounge below and fill the front bar, which blurs the boundaries between French bistro, American diner and traditional British boozer.
Naomi Midgley, 26, who works in a vintage clothes store, has come along after hearing about SDS through her friend Tom, who is currently perched on the roof terrace railing, strumming a guitar and singing his way through his repertoire.
She reckons this off-the-wall event has brought a touch of London to her weekend in Brum.
“I thought it sounded wicked!” says Naomi, “a secret dining club in a secret location. I’ve never heard of anything like it.
“I thought tonight would be a sit-down three-course meal, but here we are sitting at a picnic table on top of a roof!”
She adds: “It’s the attraction of the unknown.”
It seems everyone is agreed on the first rule of Secret Dining Society: expect the unexpected.
A taste of what you could expect
Billed as “an extravagant cub camp”, diners met in town before taking the bus to Cotteridge Park to forage for their dinner.
Rubbing sticks together to make a fire, they cooked a dinner using the mushrooms, garlic, nettles and herbs they found, served with grilled meats and salad.
A cinematic adventure at the Custard Factory’s cinema, serving up chilli popcorn and nachos to a background of food related scenes from films.
Birmingham’s barbecue specialists, the Backyard Brummies, headed up this event at The Bond canalside venue in Digbeth.
Eight-hour smoked pastrami, chicken wings, ribs and pulled pork led the way, with smoked ice cream and apple pie being the surprise hit.
Taking over the Crescent Theatre behind Brindleyplace, diners enjoyed a 100 per cent vegetarian feast that was eaten without cutlery, using hands only.