Yet Another Dining Fad: Pop-Ups, Supper Clubs Pepper America’s Culinary Map
Posted Sunday, April 29, 2012 3:25 PM
A dimly lit dining area. A small gathering of people; some strangers, yet all sharing a common bond -- a serious appreciation for good food.
When times are tight, budgets minimal, and restaurants unwelcoming, pretentious and unreliable, where does one turn for a food-friendly gathering?
Pop-ups, where a chef sets up a temporary restaurant experience, have cropped up all over New York and other cities . In addition, underground supper clubs provide a laidback alternative to spending hard-earned dollars at overpriced restaurants.
We’re not necessarily talking about the supper clubs of the 1930s and 40s, where guests would spend an entire evening with drinks, food, and entertainment. But it’s some version of that, minus the dapper dress code.
These days, supper clubs are providing a more casual alternative to regular dining. They are often set in a relaxed environment with one person serving as the evening’s chef, executing a set menu for guests. It may be a food lover hosting in their home, a chef hosting in a restaurant or as a “pop-up,” setting up an in a different venue. Sometimes the location isn’t announced until the day before or the day of the dinner.
Chef Ludo Lefebvre is dubbed the originator of pop-ups for his LudoBites, a Los Angeles dining experience he started in fall 2007. It’s essentially a touring restaurant -- no address and no phone number -- that pops up in various areas of L.A., and most recently appeared in Hawaii last month. The widely acclaimed French-trained chef has received numerous accolades for his LudoBites dishes and has an upcoming cookbook that features some of them.
Pop-ups have become an increasingly useful way to promote a new restaurant or chef -- without creating a concrete restaurant from scratch. The trend has infiltrated itself into the mainstream; countless articles and TV shows have showcased these culinary wonders.
Instead of the more formal restaurant experience, pop-ups and supper club meals provide a one-of-a-kind culinary affair, engaging guests in a more relaxed creative space.
At a pop-up event on April 16, Chef Joseph Yoon presented a “Dim Sum Fantasy Dinner,” involving eight courses of expertly crafted dim sum delights for about 15 guests. Held at EAT Cafe in Greenpoint, it was Yoon’s first pop-up in a restaurant, he said. His pop-ups usually take place in bars, and he also caters private events.
Since EAT Cafe sticks to organic, local ingredients, Yoon used only these items in his dishes. Tempura-fried anchovies, 15-ingredient tuna tartare, and sesame-glazed baby back ribs were just some of his decadent offerings. The meal was topped off with Van Leeuwen’s hazelnut ice cream alongside Mast Brothers’ chocolate-covered bacon bark. An eight-course meal for $75 in advance, or $50 at the door, made of only the finest local ingredients? Not a bad deal considering the quality control and personal interaction with the chef who created the meal.
Supper clubs held in people’s homes usually have a suggested “contribution.” Since it’s illegal to charge for food sold out of someone’s home without proper permits, this is how hosts handle covering costs. Guests usually pay out of courtesy, and some will pay above the suggested amount to show appreciation for the experience.
Supper clubs offer a casual way to experience new foods. Aside from interacting with the host, interaction with other guests comes naturally -- something that usually doesn’t happen at a restaurant. Though not a new fad, supper clubs will inevitably continue to evolve. They provide a way to dine without the fuss of making a reservation, or waiting in a crowded “trendy” restaurant. Often, people who attend these events don’t even know the host. The aura of mystery and possibility is enchanting for eager diners.
Communication is mostly conducted via email. Though these events may sound exclusive, the idea is to create a welcoming environment for people who appreciate food made with care and attention to detail. Foodies can sign up online or request to be added to email lists for various supper clubs and tasting events.
Given the attention and excitement these culinary adventures pose, it’s unlikely that the trend of supper clubs and pop-ups will end soon. With diners more inquisitive than ever about where their food comes from, these experiences surely appeal to that aspect of eating. At the same time, they offer diners a fresh sense of adventure -- “going out to eat” has attained a whole new meaning in a new century that has seen its fair share of innovative and radical food trends.
Beth Kaiserman is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.