Pop Up? Pipe Down!
Lost Society, on U Street NW, is normally closed on Monday nights. But on a recent Monday evening, its dining room played host to 18 guests in a somewhat unusual arrangement. Seated around one long communal table, the diners ate dishes like popcorn soup, strawberry pasta, and a Ritz cracker ice cream with warm apple compote and cheddar cheese—dishes you ordinarily won’t find on Lost Society’s steak-centric menu.
Then again, Lost Society’s chef wasn’t cooking. Instead, the kitchen was being borrowed by Aaron Silverman, an alum of the legendary Momofuku and of nationally-acclaimed McCrady’s Restaurant in South Carolina. Silverman is currently working to open a restaurant called Rose’s Luxury in D.C.
There’s an excitement to trying Silverman’s unexpected food in an unexpected place, and in knowing that it will all be gone tomorrow. The evening is a classic example of pop-up dining, a concept that blends the magic of a top eatery with the fleeting exclusivity of a dinner party. Lately, though, it’s an excitement that seems harder and harder to find. Pop-ups are everywhere. Which, if you’re into the exclusivity and surprise that helped popularize the idea, can feel a bit like a let-down.
“It’s lost its cachet a little bit,” says Jill Richmond, one of the first people to introduce the pop-up restaurant concept in the area. “There’s nothing inherently risky or unique about going to a pop-up. It’s kind of the norm.”
Richmond’s Number 68 Project, which launched in February of last year, was a nine-week dinner series that brought together top chefs and thought-provoking speakers for conversation and dinner. She initially started her pop-up dinners while living in London, then instituted them in D.C. when she moved here for a job at the World Bank. To attend, guests had to fill out a questionnaire that asked things like “What is your idea of earthly happiness?” Graffiato’s Mike Isabella and Equinox’s Todd Gray were among the chefs to participate in the Number 68 Project. They were joined by discussion leaders including a cognitive neuroscientist, a foreign correspondent, and a yogi. The multi-course menus and discussions centered around themes like “fear” or “innovation.”
Nowadays, though, you don’t find many questionnaires like Richmond’s. Instead, you can buy pop-up tickets from LivingSocial. But is there anything wrong with that? Maybe not. Where the pop-up scene is headed looks to be just as interesting as where it started.
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It’s hard to find basic agreement as to what the term “pop-up” even means. But to my mind, that indicates an appealing diversity rather than a tame mediocrity. Some of the pop-ups are one-off events in galleries, warehouses, or restaurants that would be otherwise closed. For chefs like Silverman, it’s a platform to test ideas or build buzz before opening a restaurant. His pop-ups started as investor dinners as he embarked on the lengthy journey to open a permanent place. Since then, he’s expanded it to friends and friends of friends, and now, anyone can send him an email to get on the list. Silverman’s first pop-up took place on the rooftop of Cava on Capitol Hill, and he’s also used Tippy’s Taco House in Rockville and Miss Pixie’s Furnishings and Whatnot on 14th St. NW.
In still other cases, the term simply refers to a restaurant or bar repurposed for something new. For example, PS7’s chef Pete Smith transformed part of his dining room into a trattoria with red checkered tablecloths and candles in wine bottles for an Italian dinner series last fall. Meanwhile, Adams Morgan Irish pub, The Blaguard, brought in a Korean pop-up to take over its underutilized kitchen on Wednesday nights. Sure, it’s not the same as sampling a fear-themed menu while discussing Afghanistan with a correspondent just returned from the front, but it’s still unique.
At its most basic level, “pop-up” implies temporariness. But even that definition is stretched. José Andrés’ America Eats Tavern pop-up restaurant looks and operates just like a permanent restaurant—only it has a one year expiration date. (Many non-pop-up restaurants don’t even last that long.) Meanwhile, Blind Dog Café, a daily pop-up serving coffee, sandwiches, and salads at Darnell’s near U Street, aims to become permanent. For Blind Dog, “pop-up” has more to do with place than time: “We’re not doing it in a necessarily temporary way, but we are popping up in someone else’s space,” says co-owner Cullen Gilchrist.
The pop-up has hosted its own pop-ups, including a ramen dinner with Toki Underground’s Erik Bruner-Yang and Kaz Sushi Bistro’s Kaz Okochi. But Blind Dog co-owner Jonas Singer says those events are not where the future of pop-ups is headed.
“These notions of one-off, one-day things are like the first brick on the yellow brick road to the new way that we all interact with commerce,” Singer says. The future pop-up model, he says, has more to do with taking advantage of underutilized space and sharing resources. For Blind Dog, that means not having to raise thousands of dollars and find a lease to start a business, but rather taking advantage of an established space when it’s not being used. “The sort of pop-up 1.0 that’s going on right now is cool, but it’s not where it’s going to end up. It’s a huge waste of resources to do one ramen dinner. It’s cool, but it’s nothing more than that.”
Morgan Greenhouse’s firm, verdeHOUSE, has created a business around “activating” unused spaces. Her company matches vacant properties with short-term users in order to bring life and attention to spaces that would otherwise be dark. In December, she teamed up with DC Food Truck Association co-founder Jeff Kelley to launch Uncurbed, a pop-up restaurant series for food truck operators to test out their food in a brick-and-mortar setting.
Greenhouse’s definition of a pop-up? Non-traditional use of a space for less than a traditional lease term. “I think it slightly has become overused and that it’s lost its definition at its core,” Greenhouse says of the word pop-up. “That being said, it truly does create this kind of widespread understanding of creative and temporary use of space.”
While that concept will likely continue to grow and evolve, at a certain point, Silverman says, the term is going to get played out and we’ll all just ignore it—kind of like “farm to table.” (Seriously, where did you think your food was coming from before?) He’s even considered using a different word for his dinners.
“Everything’s a pop-up now so I was trying to think of some other way to say it,” Silverman says. “But that’s what it is, it’s a pop-up.”
Photos by Darrow Montgomery
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