An underground restaurant in Iran. All photos by our Observers. 

In the Islamic State of Iran, restaurants are not allowed to serve items forbidden by sharia law, like alcohol and pork. And yet, it is possible to find underground establishments that serve them.

According to several of our Observers in Iran, several such hidden restaurants have cropped up in the past few years, in the capital Tehran as well as in other big cities, mainly in the country’s north. These places are unlicensed, and therefore can only be found through word of mouth. The attraction isn’t only the forbidden foods: women there can dress in a relaxed manner and take off their head scarves, which are mandatory in public. Furthermore, in these establishments, young unmarried couples don’t have to worry about the prying eyes of the morality police.


“There’s no sign outside, and no windows onto the street”

Sahar (not her real name) is a customer of one of these underground restaurants in Tehran.

I go to this restaurant almost every week since I discovered it thanks to a friend. It’s located inside a vast building, and there’s no sign outside. You have to call ahead to make a reservation. The first time I went, I thought it would be very “hush hush”, but you just knock on the door, tell them what name you made the reservation under and they let you in. It’s quite relaxed; there’s no guard at the door. Once inside, you walk through a courtyard before arriving at the restaurant. All of the windows face onto the courtyard; there are no windows onto the street.


In this restaurant, ham is not actually on the menu, but if you order it in advance they’ll prepare it for you. Since the establishment is not licensed, there are no safety inspections by the authorities  so of course that’s a risk. But I’m not worried – I think that since they don’t want to get into any trouble with the authorities, they must be extra-careful about food safety, probably more than other restaurants! I have tried lobster, which is also prohibited in Iran. Lobster still used to be served at regular restaurants a few years ago, but hardliners complained that it too was against sharia law and there was a crackdown. [Editor’s Note: Some sects of Islam – both Sunni and Shiite – consider certain seafood to be prohibited, too.]


“I can be myself there”

Compared to normal restaurants, prices are a bit higher but not excessively so. It’s certainly isn’t cheap for the restaurants owners to buy forbidden products [Editor’s Note: France 24 was not able to interview the owners of underground restaurants for this article; it is unclear where they source their products. However, in Iran, it is possible to buy ham and alcohol either on the black market or within non-Muslim minority communities]. Of course, they also have lower overhead than licensed restaurants because they avoid taxes. For me, this taste of freedom is worth the price!


But I don’t necessarily go there to eat these special foods. What I like is the sense of freedom there. I can take off my hijab and be myself. My friend who introduced me to the restaurant doesn’t eat pork or drink but she likes to go there with her boyfriend because they don’t have to worry about the police making any trouble for them.


I think most of the customers aren’t especially rebellious; they just don’t care about what’s “halal” [allowed by Islam] or “haram” [forbidden by Islam], and this seems to be increasingly true among Iran’s younger generations. For example, the other day at the restaurant, I saw three women at a table: a grandmother wearing a chador, her daughter wearing a headscarf, and her daughter’s niece, who wasn’t wearing one. I think this is a good example of how the young are more and more detached from religious conventions, and how their elders often let them be. It makes me hopeful for the future of Iran. Thirty years after the Islamic revolution, it seems the people – though not the government - are finally starting to get it, that you can’t force others to live the way you think is correct.
 
Post written with France 24 journalist Ershad Aljiani (@ErshadAlijani).