The Un-Restaurant Trend

© Alanna Hale
By Daniel Duane Posted June 29, 2015

Everyone arrives at the same time, hangs out in the kitchen, then lingers for hours over a fabulous meal. But this isn’t a dinner party: it’s a restaurant. Here, a look at the trend.

Everyone arrives at the same time, hangs out in the kitchen, then lingers for hours over a fabulous meal. But this isn’t a dinner party: it’s a restaurant. Here, a look at the trend.

Back when my kids were toddlers and my wife was always tired and we were flat broke, I threw multicourse dinner parties many nights a week. 
I have no idea why that seemed like a sensible use of limited family resources, but I do know that I liked pretending I was a Michelin-starred chef. I bought big white plates to dramatize my food, and I asked my friends to chip in money for luxury ingredients like foie gras and truffles. Then came the night I had 24 guests, each of them contributing $40, and somebody asked me the obvious question: “Shouldn’t you just open a restaurant?”

My answer was no, because even great restaurants felt impersonal and transactional compared to a good dinner party. At dinner parties, everybody arrives at the same time, has a drink with the cook in the kitchen, then settles around a single table. They eat the same dishes at the same 
time and linger for hours. There’s no bill to pay when it’s all over, so they can say good night without breaking the spell. 

Chefs don’t traditionally worry about all this. But something shifted in the culture a while back. High-end restaurants began to feel too formal and formulaic (not to mention stratospherically expensive), and Facebook and Twitter gave home cooks and unemployed chefs a way to advertise pop-ups and underground supper clubs taking place in unorthodox settings—warehouses, art galleries, apartments. The rest of us showed up at those supper clubs in droves, excited by the novelty and the intimacy. Those supper-club chefs, in turn, began dreaming of brick-and-mortar restaurants preserving the dinner-party vibe that led to success in the first place.

Momofuku-trained chef Aaron Silverman, for example, ran a supper club out of his Washington, DC, house before leasing a restaurant space around the corner. He named the place Rose’s Luxury, after his grandmother Rose, who loved to entertain. Silverman began serving dishes reflecting the eclecticism of the modern American home kitchen: Korean fried catfish, smoked brisket with horseradish and slaw, fried Italian eggplant. He decorated with what he calls “Easter eggs”—peculiar cookbooks, toy soldiers fighting staged battles—and stocked the bathrooms with personal touches like bobby pins. 

Chef Jake Bickelhaupt of Chicago’s 42 Grams followed much the same path: first, years spent cooking in other people’s kitchens; then, an underground supper club where he prepared wildly ambitious dinners in his own apartment, with help from his wife, Alexa Welsh. But when the couple found a restaurant space in their apartment building, they went further than Silverman: They installed seating for only 18 guests—eight at the chef’s counter or 10 at a communal table. Book all of one or 
the other with friends, at 5:45 p.m. or 8:30 p.m., and you are getting what amounts to a catered dinner party. 

Welsh does all the service herself, using her grand­mother’s sterling and her mother’s wedding china. Bickelhaupt, who employs exactly two extra cooks and a single dishwasher, prepares the meal while the stereo plays his own Spotify stream. He apprenticed in Chicago’s most progressive kitchens, from Charlie Trotter’s to Alinea to Schwa, and it shows in technically sophisticated creations like his edible faux-flower arrangements, gel-cube mocktails and salmon brined in Lapsang souchong tea. Ten months after opening, 42 Grams earned two Michelin stars. Bickelhaupt recently earned another honor: He has been named an F&W Best New Chef.

The most extreme example of the restaurant-as-dinner-party trend has to be Lazy Bear, a San Francisco pop-up-gone-permanent that bills itself as “a modern American fine-dining dinner party.” Just like 42 Grams, Lazy Bear requires you to pay 
up front as if buying a ticket to 
a concert ($100 to $150 per person, plus a 20 percent service charge, plus $75 for the optional beverage pairing). The sign on the building has no letters—just a row of 
red dots—and, on the night I went, 
a dapper young host found my name on what looked like a VIP list. He led my wife and me into 
a lounge straight out of a Wes Anderson movie set in your weird rich uncle’s Yosemite hunting lodge: camping photos, national park memorabilia, 1970s rock-and-roll pictures. A young woman ladled tequila punch from a bowl, guests mingled on couches, and servers handed out duck Slim Jims and other snacks for a day in the mountains.

Eventually we joined the other guests in what was apparently meant to be the dining hall of that hunting lodge, except now the weird rich uncle had been replaced by a bachelor tech zillionaire who’d built the place just to throw over-the-top dinner parties. Exposed ceiling timbers supported an upside-down dried tree, and the walls were covered in charred wooden planks and faux-taxidermy hunting trophies. Two polished wood tables given the stretch-limo treatment held 20 place settings that included little pencils and small red plaid notebooks titled “A Field Guide to Lazy Bear.” At the back of the room was a big, wide-open kitchen where chefs bustled about preparing our dinner.

Servers showed my wife and me to seats across from each another in the middle of one of those tables. Then chef-owner David Barzelay appeared at the front of the room. Handsome in a barroom-brawler kind of way, with a bent nose and roguish smile, Barzelay welcomed everybody in a booming voice. Then he laid out ground rules that included politely pausing conversation whenever a chef described a dish. “Also, we pretty much insist that you come hang out in the kitchen whenever the mood strikes, and we hope it strikes often,” Barzelay said. 

Formerly a patent lawyer at a firm specializing in technology, Barzelay started cooking much as I did, throwing big home dinner parties. But then he took the step I failed to: selling tickets to strangers, doing pop-ups and finally putting together financing for a permanent location. Barzelay’s food has professional polish and refinement: geoduck clam, for example, with raw Santa Barbara spot prawn and basil-fed snails in a garden of tiny sorrels foraged in Golden Gate Park. He poaches lobster tail sous vide in butter infused with Asian XO sauce and sears squab and foie gras with poached pear 
and almond nougatine.

But the real innovation is the overall experience. Lazy Bear didn’t feel like any dinner party I’ve ever been to; a more apt comparison might be a meal in a luxurious private club where the member who invited you got hopelessly lost on the way over, so you don’t know a soul. There is something awkward about an evening with all the trappings of a social gathering but none of the usual mechanisms encouraging people 
to meet one another—no host making introductions, for instance. At a conventional restaurant, it would’ve been rude 
to introduce ourselves to the guests on either side, but at 
a conventional dinner party, it would’ve been rude not to. So we chose the awkward middle ground of murmured hellos and quick handshakes. Same for those kitchen visits: Barzelay really does let you walk up and look over his shoulder while he plates the next course, but he certainly doesn’t have time to hear your life story. 

Still, there is something soothing and unique about an evening where nobody comes and goes, every guest has the same meal at the same pace, and you’re allowed to get up and walk around if you feel like it. And even if you don’t make new friends, there is genuine pleasure in having a shared experience among strangers. Think of live theater and that sense of connection you feel to the rest of the audience, especially when the final curtain falls. I knew perfectly well what I’d paid for my evening at Lazy Bear, but I was surprised by how pleasant it was to push back my chair after the last of the desserts and, without even touching my wallet, follow my wife back into the night. 

San Francisco–based writer Daniel Duane is the author, most recently, of How to Cook Like a Man.

Where to Try the Trend:

Chicago: 42 Grams
Jake Bickelhaupt (an F&W Best New Chef 2015) and his wife, Alexa Welsh, make up a third of the staff at this tiny, hyperambitious BYOB spot. 4662 N. Broadway St.;

Austin: Josephine House
Guests are encouraged to hang out with a cocktail on the lawn of this cottage café, the location of a Mondays-only steak frites party. 1601 Waterston Ave.;

Brooklyn: Take Root
This 12-seat, tasting-menu-only spot is run by married couple Elise Kornack (the chef) and Anna Hieronimus (who brings out the food, buses tables and handles the wine). 187 Sackett St.;

San Francisco: Lazy Bear At this ticketed, clubhouse-like restaurant (pictured above), self-taught chef David Barzelay turns out modern American dishes like an umami bomb of charred onion broth with ham and egg yolk. 3416 19th St.;

Washington, DC: Rose's Luxury
Momofuku-trained chef Aaron Silverman uses vintage dishes from his personal collection to serve dishes like strawberry-flecked pasta. 717 Eighth St. SE;

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