Though it’s always disheartening to see an idea fail, it goes with the territory that trends in dining rarely last. The best you can hope for is that a concept you like has enough support and maintains a level of excellence so that it eventually becomes mainstream — or at least neighborhood staple. Because of that, I’ve spent the better part of the year wondering when I might see the end of the pop-up dining craze. 2013 saw so many out-of-the-box temporary restaurants that it seemed the field might finally be saturated.
But somewhere between the dinner party that served multiple courses based on the concept of lettuce wraps and the highbrow guest chef dinners like Alex Stupak’s Push Project, I reached a conclusion: I don’t think it’s going anywhere. And what’s more, what was once considered a fad in the food and beverage world is now a serious game changer.
What was once a handful of restaurants running temporary dinners for economic reasons has blossomed into a range of offbeat dining experiences: These days, it almost seems strange if a chef doesn’t run a secret dinner party, a temporary makeshift restaurant, or a Smorgas-stand as a side gig, and because diners respond so well, we’re also seeing a bevy of companies get into the game — see Dinner Lab and Underground Eats for proof.
And people of all skillsets are entering the business: Sometimes, they’re really great home chefs with no formal training who are looking for a chance to do what they love. Other times, these people have been in the business their entire lives and need creative outlets to remember why they chose this career path. And often, these are would-be restaurateurs who are testing concepts before signing a lease.
But they’ve been successful because pop-up dinners disrupt the restaurant world in a way that’s great for diners. Not knowing exactly what you’re getting into is mysteriously appealing, and pop-ups lend plenty of chance to surprise attendees. Sometimes that means a secret location that’s disclosed only after you’ve purchased a seating. Other times it’s a killer menu from a guest chef in an existing space.
Most importantly, just as the view of an open kitchen breaks down the barrier between chef and diner, these experiences often bring dining back to its simplest communal roots. And in our city, where dining out can resemble a trophy hunt and working in the kitchen can feel like a rat race, a concept that removes the pomp and circumstance has staying power. I hope it only grows in 2014 (though I’m not terribly worried about it).