Can a trend still be called sexy, secret and underground if everyone’s doing it? Maybe. Though the elitist lure of the pop-up restaurant has gone the way of the food truck and locally sourced produce, that doesn’t mean it can’t still be a damn good time.
The pop-up restaurant lives on a two-fold theory. One, that opening a restaurant requires a lot of capital and two, that tradition (cue Fiddler on the Roof) can get boring.
As its name implies, a pop-up restaurant is a temporary establishment. It often finds a home in the off-hours of established restaurants, private homes, art galleries or former factories. Because they’re such short-lived and on-the-fly events, hosts rarely spend bushels of cash on advertisement, choosing to use guerilla tactics like word-of-mouth and social media (Facebook, Twitter, blogs etc.) to create a buzz. Though they’ve been around a while, pop-ups have been receiving a lot of attention recently. Often, snagging a spot at a coveted table can be quite difficult – and expensive.
Which is interesting, considering that one main reason many chefs choose to open a pop-up is because it’s much less expensive than opening up a standard, stationary venue. Evan Bloom and Leo Beckerman of Wise Sons Jewish Deli in San Francisco started a once-a-week pop-up to supplement their in-store offerings. Their start up cost was $2,000-$2,500 per week of operation. Though these figures are much higher in New York, where three or four nights can cost between $30,000 and $50,000, this expense pales in comparison to the cost of starting up a food truck ($50,000 to $200,000) or a 1,500 square foot restaurant ($300,000 to $500,000).
But people don’t open a pop-up simply for economic reasons. It’s a great way for chefs to think creatively without the constraints of four walls. There’s a certain amount of risk associated with opening a restaurant – and it can be intimidating to invest so much money in a concept or menu people might hate. Especially for new chefs, a pop-up is a great way to gain exposure while seeking out investors and garnering excitement for an eventual restaurant launch.
Toronto chef Nick Liu, for instance, left his job over a year ago to open a modern Asian brasserie called GwaiLo. However, he’s faced trouble in everything from negotiating a lease to getting a liquor license. To keep up interest for his new restaurant, Liu has held pop-up dinners in various places, like a series in the upstairs dining room of the Niagara Street Café and a month-long residency at the Metropolitan Hotel’s Senses restaurant.
Other famous examples of chefs who’ve launched great restaurants after a successful pop-up run include Stephanie Izard, who’s underground restaurant, Wandering Goat, became Chicago’s renowned Girl and the Goat, or Anthony Myint, the founder of Mission Street Food, an incredibly popular pop-up in San Francisco that migrated from a Guatemalan taco truck to a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco to find its own home in Mission Chinese Food.
Some chefs do it the other way around. They see a pop-up as a way to branch out creatively or try new menu ideas. Ludo Lefebvre left the established restaurant scene to start a very successful pop-up called LudoBites, serving innovative small plates which highlight local ingredients – wherever the restaurant happens to be. (Hawaiians were treated to lobster roll with fresh fruit and Asian dressing, pork belly barbeque with spicy pickle slaw and pineapple guacamole and Hirame ceviche with strawberry papaya water, cucumber and salmon roe.) Or there’s chef Tommy Halvorson, who has manned the stove at such famous eateries as Bix, Adagia, Eccolo, Gary Danko and Chez Panisse, and is now holding semi-regular dinners in various San Francisco locales under the moniker “eat.” But don’t just expect dinner at one of these shin-digs. You might be greeted with live painters and a DJ or a surprise visit from another favorite food cart. Crème Brulee Cart, Smitten Ice Cream and Sweet Constructions have all made an appearance.
Pop-ups have found homes in fantastical places. The world’s highest was on Mount Kilimanjaro (12,500 feet) and its lowest in a Finnish limestone mine 263 feet below sea level. But sometimes a pop-up exists solely so that a chef can explore a theme, a dinner composed of dishes found in literature or small plates of bizarrely-blended fusion food, that might not have enough longevity to see a traditional restaurant into happy old age.
While San Francisco is currently leading the pop-up trend, a reflection, perhaps, on the city’s high rents and overcrowded restaurant scene, there’s a good chance that wherever you are in the world, there’ll be a pop-up popping up sometime soon.