From pop-up spots to food trucks to hot-ticket chef events, un-restaurants are causing a fundamental change in how we eat out. Writer Salma Abdelnour, a culinary thrill-seeker and sometime trend victim, explains.
I can count on three fingers the number of times I've been early for anything, but I recently arrived at Pulino's in Manhattan at 11:59 p.m., a full 60 seconds before the place started serving its midnight-only cheeseburgers. Why? Because Nate Appleman, an F&W Best New Chef 2009, had just announced he'd be making only 30 orders each night of his signature burger, a refreshingly classic version topped with cheddar and griddled onions and served on a Martin's potato roll. I knew if I didn't pull off one of my rare feats of punctuality, I'd lose out. Am I a sucker? Probably. But I couldn't help feeling a rush from walking into Pulino's just in time. In my early teens, crossing the finish line at track meets gave me the same high. Racing to a restaurant for a cheeseburger is, trust me, much more fun.
The Pulino's late-night burger was inspired by Atlanta restaurant Holeman & Finch Public House, where Linton Hopkins (another F&W Best New Chef 2009) serves only two dozen burgers starting at 10 p.m.and sells out nightly. Suddenly, the world seems full of similar kinds of ephemeral food experiences. Not just limited-edition dishes but also one-night-only themed restaurant dinners like the fried-chicken competition that chefs Ludovic Lefebvre and Eric Greenspan recently hosted at Los Angeles's Foundry on Melrose. And let's not forget pop-ups like London's the Double Club, a hybrid Congolese-Western restaurant, art space and lounge that attracted celebrities like fashion designer Stella McCartney and architect Zaha Hadid in its eight-month life last year.
I'm a little embarrassed to admit how susceptible I am to these kinds of stunts. On a recent rainy Saturday, I found myself embarking on a seemingly endless subway and bus odysseythe public transit system was particularly gnarled that weekendto visit the Greenpoint, Brooklyn, pop-up shop where, for five days only, an indie confectioner I like called Liddabit Sweets was selling its beer-and-pretzel caramels and blood-orange jellies. I was desperate for an adventure on that dreary day, and what's better than a candy-hunting expedition? Liddabit's owners, partnering with the local Kumquat Cupcakery, had rented Greenpoint's Kill Devil Hill vintage shop and festooned the shelves and tables in the small space with mounds of candies and boxes of cupcakes. The salty, gooey pretzel caramelsand the happy, sugar-jacked mood in the store, which swarmed with people who'd read about it on food blogscured my travel and rain malaise.
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Getting in on these fleeting food experiences often means dropping everything and making a quick decisionsomething I haven't always managed to pull off. Last September, New York City hosted an event called Le Fooding d'Amour, which brought top French chefs like Stéphane Jego of Paris's Chez l'Ami Jean to New York for two days to cook alongside local chefs like WD-50's Wylie Dufresne (an F&W Best New Chef 2001) and mixologists from cutting-edge bars like Dutch Kills. The event was intended to herald a new age of non-stuffy French diningcreative, rebellious chefs throwing off the shackles of traditional haute cuisine. The entire program sold out in just a few hours, even though it was scheduled at the same time as the similarly jammed Vendy Awards, which anoint the city's best street-food vendors. It seemed like every food-fixated New Yorker was headed to Le Foodingeveryone except me. I didn't get a ticket in time, and though I'd been to some of the Parisian chefs' restaurants (like Yves Camdeborde's Le Comptoir), I felt like I'd lost out on an epic event. What strikes me most about Le Fooding, in retrospect, is that it wasn't just another mobbed party packed with chefs, fancy bartenders and DJs; it was also a rare chance to sample food from brilliant Paris talents in a completely new environment, and without booking a flight.
Luckily, certain other kinds of fast-moving culinary experiences, like food trucks, are more forgiving of those of us who aren't always so quick on our feet. When I say "food trucks," I'm not talking about the vans that park every day at a regular location and serve kebabs or other homestyle ethnic dishes. I'm talking about the new breed of catch-me-if-you-can businesses, like New York City's Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream, which changes locations and announces its latest parking place on Twitter. A big part of the reason why these entrepreneurial trucks have been so successful is their skilled use of social media, which has helped them build a following and keep fans interested. I don't mean to downplay the fact that many of these trucks sell exceptionally delicious food, but the sense of accomplishment in catching the old-fashioned-looking, mellow-yellow Van Leeuwen truck makes the handmade hazelnut ice cream even more rewarding. Social media has also been useful for spreading news to loyal followersalerting Van Leeuwen's fans, for instance, about the owners' new brick-and-mortar ice cream parlor in Brooklyn.
Why are so many people like me fixated on the fast and the fleeting? Biology might have an answer. Running after a sandwich or a cocktail that's about to disappear may trigger the same rush of the neurotransmitter dopamine that comes from hunting prey (or from ingesting certain illegal drugs)and, let's be honest, a dopamine rush feels pretty good. Plus it's safe(ish), unless you're in a car speeding through the streets after an ice cream truck. Scientists have been studying the effect of dopamine spikes caused by certain kinds of high-risk experiences and novelties, and why some people are prone to seek out activities that trigger those sensations. "I think humans as a species are characterized by novelty- and intensity-seeking," wrote psychologist Marvin Zuckerman, professor emeritus at the University of Delaware, in a recent report from the Dana Foundation, an institute that supports research on the brain. When initially thrilling experiences get old, he added, certain people who are hooked on those high-wire feelings "need something more exciting, something new." For food lovers, there's always another pop-up to supply the next fix.
Or maybe there's a simpler reason why pop-ups are so alluring. My friend Jennifer, who lives in Brooklyn and has joined me on all kinds of cockamamie food adventures, gave me her take: "There's a relaxed quality to these kinds of events. You don't expect things to be seamless and polished," she said. "Maybe one dish doesn't work out perfectly or you're raising your eyebrows at some point in the meal. But in the right spirit of experimentation, the sense of camaraderie that happens can be fantastic. People are unjadedly happy to be there."
Surely one of the biggest explanations for this trend can be summed up in three letters: A.D.D. In our hugely attention-deficit-disordered culture, with so many distractions flying at us all day, why devote a precious slice of our attention spans to something we can get to next month, next yearor even in the next hour? The savviest chefs and restaurateurs seem to have figured out that to get people's attention, they have to provide a reason to act immediately. The budding young cookie entrepreneur Josh Greenspan, son of pastry chef and cookbook author Dorie Greenspan, put it this way: "People are really hooked on something that's limited. It pushes you to actually get there. Otherwise, it's easy to put off. You say, ‘That store is going to be open for the next 20 yearsI'll make it there another time.'"
For six days earlier this year, Josh and Dorie ran a Manhattan pop-up called CookieBar in a friend's Park Avenue hair salon. With the help of chef friends like Bradford Thompson (an F&W Best New Chef 2004) and Jean Georges pastry whiz Johnny Iuzzini, they baked and sold eight kinds of homemade cookies, including intensely chocolaty ones made with Valrhona cocoa and fleur de sel. I stopped by one afternoon and found the Greenspans being photographed from all sides by food bloggers and newspaper reporters, all there to freeze-frame the moment. Some people standing in line were texting, Tweeting or (in a nice, old-fashioned way) phoning the less fortunate. No surprise: These days, having a rare, envy-provoking food experience without bragging about it is like that proverbial tree falling in the forest. If friends don't know you succeeded in getting that limited-edition cookie, does it matter that you ate it? When I think back on the moments that most screamed "2010," CookieBar will be right up there.
Some restaurants offering get-it-while-you-can theme dinners find themselves with a strange dilemma: Their regular menu is so good that it's hard for the "special menu" to compete. When Locanda Verde, one of my favorite Manhattan restaurants, started doing themed prix fixe meals a few months ago, I knew I had to snag a seat. I made it in for one of the two truffle dinners, where Andrew Carmellini (an F&W Best New Chef 2000) served a menu based on concoctions like minestrone with oxtail, foie-gras ravioli and truffles. The truffle dishes were excellent, but I would have been sad to leave Locanda without having even a taste of the luscious pastas off the regular menu or the sheep's-milk-ricotta crostini I always get. In the end, however, it was a win-win situation: At our table of four, three of us ordered black-truffle dishes and one person ordered off the regular menuand we all stole bites off each others' plates. My friends and I also talked a waiter into giving us some of the special AC/BT shirts that the staff was wearing"Andrew Carmellini/Black Truffle," styled like the AC/DC band logoso we had the satisfaction of getting in on a raucous, sold-out evening, plus the evidence to prove it.
Many pop-up events have a populist appeal but paradoxically end up rewarding only the persistent and those with time to devote to the hunt. Take Los Angeles's awesome Kogi Korean BBQ taco truck, run by Roy Choi, an F&W Best New Chef 2010. His philosophy is all about providing creative, inexpensive food to the man on the street. But getting one of his tacos, filled with ingredients like spicy pork belly with Korean red-chili paste, requires tenacity. On a recent L.A. trip, I spent almost my entire lunchtime pursuing the Kogi van, which posts its ever-changing locations on Twitter. I eventually gave up, done in by L.A.'s maddening traffic. It took two burgers to console me that day, first at Father's Office, then at Umami Burger, but the frustrated attempt didn't dissuade me entirely. On future trips to L.A., I'll head straight to Chego!Choi's new brick-and-mortar restaurant.
As long as enough of these food experiences deliver a thrillnot just the thrill of the chase but also a genuinely delicious payoffthis trend isn't going away anytime soon. Twitter and other instant-communication apps are making it irresistible for chefs to lure diners with a new dish they've just invented, or even to solicit their fans' frank opinions before they forge ahead.
Many chefs also seem just as addicted to fleeting experiences as their fans are, whether it's for the rush or for the escape from the duller realities of running a restaurant. Graham Elliot Bowles, of the eponymous Chicago restaurant and a soon-to-open sandwich shop called Grahamwich, told me he's been hankering to do a pop-up-style event. Early next year, he plans to jump in a van with some colleagues and drive around the country for a few weeks, cooking in different restaurant kitchens, sort of like a band playing gigs from coast to coast. Bowles doesn't expect to make a big profit, if any at all, from the road trip. "Lots of bands are making just enough money each night to get to the next town," he said.
So, for a successful chef like Bowles (an F&W Best New Chef 2004), what's the point of an unprofitable cross-country trek? Bowles said he craves the chance to commune with like-minded chefs and customers who live nowhere near Chicago, and to challenge himself to work in a whole different environment. He also likes the idea of freeing diners from routine. "The pop-up idea takes away a ton of the pomp and the barriers, like having to make reservations months in advance or wear certain kinds of clothes," he explained. "It's a good way of saying ‘Screw you' to the whole system." When even chefs who are responsible for "the system" are trying to change it, it's safe to say the revolution is nigh. The restaurant is dead. Long live the restaurant.
Salma Abdelnour, a writer based in New York City, is the former travel editor at F&W. She is working on a book, Jasmine and Fire, about moving back home to Beirut, Lebanon.