The rise of the pop-up: how food beyond the restaurant became the next big thing

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Going out to dinner is an event. As a chance for diners to dress up and indulge in the sort of food that’s far too much hassle to prepare at home, a trip to any eatery is exciting. Surrendering your meal to a stranger’s palate is a true exercise in trust. For years, this meant that conservative instinct dominated the culinary landscape. Patrons would only give up their hard earned cash to tried, true and trained professionals. However, as we have become more adventurous, we’ve become more open than ever before to exploring unknown food spots. It is this climate that has facilitated the rise of one of today’s most popular dining fads - the pop-up restaurant.

waiter in a restaurant Credit: Flickr/Ian James

Pop-up restaurants, also referred to in some circles as supper clubs, reflect the pace and pragmatism of modern life. Whereas a permanent restaurant has deep roots in a particular location, pop-ups are all about flexibility. As the name implies, they can sprout up almost anywhere, and typically in some of the least foodie places imaginable. Factories, abandoned warehouses and even old train carriages are today home to opportunistic chefs across the world.

There is little reliable evidence on when the first pop-up, as we would recognise it, was established. However, it was really after the millennium that the fad exploded. Proving particularly popular in America, pop-up restaurants thrived by giving street food staples a more stable home.

Perhaps the biggest factor in the successful growth of the pop-up movement has been the advent of social media as a mass-marketing tool. Whereas early examples were forced to rely on word of mouth in order to grow, modern practitioners can reach a huge audience with relative ease. Twitter, Instagram and Facebook are all important tools in the modern pop-up’s arsenal. These platforms enable foodies to stay up-to-date with their local competition and provide a great source of inspiration for new arrivals on the scene.

As the pop-up trend has gathered momentum, many restaurants have left the street altogether. With today’s world arguably more foodie than ever before, an increasing number of enthusiastic amateurs are establishing their own independent supper clubs in the comfort of their own home. Perhaps an even more intimate experience than any other approach to dining, this trend is helping more talented home cooks than ever before turn a hobby into something professional.

Supper club plates arranged in a row

A counter-cultural movement against dining tradition, pop-ups are often as much about the atmosphere as the food. While some restaurants may have strict codes of conduct and dress codes, many pop-ups emphasise inclusivity. In 2010, New York’s The Hunger supper club launched with a guest list designed to pair celebrities and non-celebs alike. They even Googled guests to ensure that each table got an eclectic mix of diners. Eating your dinner in an unfamiliar or unconventional environment is something that can greatly enhance the overall experience.

One of the most compelling arguments for the pop-up way of doing things is the creative freedom that they allow for. For this reason, pop-ups are attracting some of the world’s biggest culinary talents. Self-taught chef Brandon Baltzley, formerly of three-Michelin starred Alinea in Chicago, creates pioneering food at his pop-up, Crux, twice a week at secret locations around the country. Similarly, when the world-famous Noma closed its doors in 2016, Rene Radzepi and the team embarked on a world tour, bringing creative flair in new settings across the world.

Just as world-class chefs make the transition to pop-ups, so pop-ups can help the less established break onto the scene. A great example is the UK’s Clove Club - currently ranked as the 26th best restaurant in the world. Formed as a supper club in a flat in Shoreditch, the food that chef Isaac McHale served helped cement the club’s reputation as one of the premier dining destinations in the city and secured the restaurant a permanent location. The presence of pop-ups clearly helps as a transition for up-and-coming talents.

As both technology and our relationship with food advance, pop-ups and supper clubs promise to continue to evolve. Increasingly, new businesses are helping to unify the home delivery and the supper club markets. In the UK, HomeFood provide a delivery service of meals cooked by amateur cooks at home, making the link between a restaurant and a homely eating experience even more pronounced.

The joy of pop-ups is that there is something to cater for every taste. Whatever your inclination, there will be something for you. Though they may require more extensive research and a larger workload than most typical restaurants, pop-ups guarantee a real taste of adventure. For the more intrepid foodie, there is no better way to explore local metropolitan food.