First, it was underground supper clubs. Now, everything’s coming up pop-ups. As with food trucks, this form of guerrilla cheffing borne of economic need has become a global phenomenon. Equal parts dinner party and dinner theater, a pop-up refers to a dining establishment that is open anywhere from one to several nights, usually in an existing restaurant or other commercial food establishment.
The impermanent nature of pop-ups means no real overhead or utilities, and little food cost and labor. They’re not enough to sustain chefs financially, but are instead a great way for them to make a name for themselves and draw some income in between (or during) gigs. Pop-ups also give chefs a chance to stretch themselves, stylistically or ethnically, although some prefer to let local ingredients shine. Most pop-ups give props to sustainability by sourcing product from local farms, which is part of what gives these fly-by-night operations such a wonderful sense of place.
I first heard about pop-ups while couch-surfing in San Francisco two years ago (my own pop-up form of survival after relocating back to the West Coast from Colorado). Chef Anthony Myint, the brainchild behind SF’s Mission Street Food pop-up, which started in 2008, was serving much-lauded, locally-sourced dinners Thursday nights, each time with the help of a guest chef. The food was unpredictable with regard to cuisine or style. The location? Lung Shan, a nondescript Chinese restaurant in the city’s vibrant Mission District (FYI, my favorite place for great, usually cheap, eats). I remember thinking at the time, “More, please.”Fast-forward 24 months, and while the pop-up is no more, the venture was so successful, Myint is now co-owner of San Francisco’s popular Commonwealth, as well as newly minted (har) chef at the forthcoming Mission Bowling Club. And Joshua Skenes of Saison, one of Food & Wine magazine’s newly crowned Best New Chefs, started the restaurant as a pop-up.
San Francisco has long been an incubator for innovative ideas involving food, so it’s no surprise pop-ups are, ah, popular there (click here for a recent round-up). Meanwhile, fellow 2011 Best New Chef Jason Franey, of Seattle’s Canlis, has also been getting in on the pop-up. In February, he cooked a one-night gig at “Hearth & Home,” held at one of the city’s Macrina Bakery locations (another tip: if you’re in town, visit Macrina in its own right. Four words: chocolate-orange pound cake).
The pop-up trend–which now applies to boutiques, galleries, clubs, coffee houses, and bars–has gone national. Los Angeles, San Diego, New Orleans, Chicago, New York, Boston, Portland (Oregon), Miami: all popular for restaurant pop-ups. Oakland has seen phenomenal response to its Pop-up General Store, which features a twice-monthly gathering of food vendors held at a catering kitchen. Founded by former Chez Panisse Chef Christopher Lee and his former sous chef Saimin Nosrat (of Berkeley’s defunct Eccolo), the venue features all the deliciousness you would expect when a group of mostly former Chez Panisse cooks and food artisans get together and prepare things to eat.
Pop-ups are even crossing the pond. The New York Times reports that, starting today, Singapore is sending some of its top chefs and a pop-up kitchen on a yearlong trip around the world, with nine stops planned in Moscow, Paris, London, Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Delhi, Sydney, and Dubai. Dubbed Singapore Takeout, the goal is to showcase the city’s eclectic, multi-ethnic cuisine. The kitchen is a converted 20-by-eight-foot shipping container. Also hitting the road is chef Thomas Keller of The French Laundry, Ad Hoc, Bouchon, and Per Se. He’ll be featured in a ten-day pop-up at Harrods, London later this summer.
Tip: Due to the nature of pop-ups, the best way to find them is to Google the words, “pop-up restaurant, ____ (city).” You can also go to Pop up Restaurants for news. Get popping!