A restaurant is a wonderful thing. It’s a place to park up with friends, loved ones, colleagues, or even alone and enjoy one of life’s simplest pleasures in its greatest form: food. It is becoming increasingly apparent though that restaurants are also an expensive thing. Running a restaurant is no small feat – which means that for the smaller enterprises and those without investment, opening one can seem like a bit of a pipe dream.
What this means is that the pop-up and supper club scene is thriving more than ever. The perfect way to trial out restaurant concepts without the financial responsibility of a bricks-and-mortar establishment, this dining format has swept through London since the late 2000s, with everyone from up-and-coming names to established chefs opening for a limited-time-only, to a fair few veterans finally settling down somewhere more permanent after fine-tuning their concept through a series of transient events.
I’ve been thinking about pop-ups a lot recently, not just because I’ve eaten at a decent number of them, but also because the news seems to be increasingly filled with rising prices and closures. Standing in stark relief with all of that doom and gloom is the bubbling of hope that a lo-fi dining experience represents. It always feels so free from the shackles of commercial viability and instead remains planted purely in the passion that is being served up on the plate.
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The most obvious first port of call for this topic is Carousel, the restaurant that has built an entire, sprawling, split-level concept out of the pop-up format. As the name might suggest, Carousel spotlights a rotating selection of chefs over limited, week-long pop ups in their dedicated dining space, alongside a more informal wine bar and a slightly more long-term incubator area. From local chefs like Olia Hercules to international outposts like Bar Brutal, the line-up is wide-ranging and ever-changing. On my recent visit, Mexico’s Emmanuel Prieto was in the kitchen, and the impressive menu included esquites – grilled corn kernels, chile guajillo, smoked feta and lime – all mixed up in a bowl together for a bloody zinger of a mouthful, as well as beetroot with pickled fennel bulb, hoja santa oil, creme fraiche and wild capers. There were a couple of misses – notably, an overcooked piece of lobster – but is that not to be expected (and definitely forgiven) when a chef is in unfamiliar territory?
Speaking of Carousel, there’s a pop-up there that sold out in record time this week by Rahel Stephanie (also known as Spoons) in partnership with wine expert Hannah Crosbie. Tickets flew off the shelf in just one minute, which is unsurprising given the chef’s reputation for incredible Indonesian food and Crosbie’s reputation for seeking out distinctive bottles of natural wine. Rahel’s supper clubs have become something of a cult legend. Started out of a desire to see the food of her home country represented accurately in the UK, the supper club serves up a feast of Indonesian classics, which can include anything from corn fritters with sambal to sate with spicy kecap manis sauce (no – not all sate includes peanut sauce, the word literally refers to any skewered food in Indonesian, as Stephanie is keen to make clear to British diners).
A few doors down from Carousel (Charlotte Street is having a moment for pop-ups, I guess) was the Sophie Wyburd supper club at Norma, which I visited recently. The talented cook, best known for her work at Mob, parked up in the kitchen with Giovann Attard for one night only, serving up a cracking Sicilian-inspired menu full of so much food I almost keeled over on my journey home. It’s a smart collaboration – Wyburd gets to serve up her food to actual, real-life customers (rather than simply having her recipes watched by avid followers), and Norma benefits from the attention of a younger crowd.
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Another cracker of a recent pop-up meal was the Four Horsemen x Brooklyn Brewery dinner at Rondo La Cave. The much-loved Brooklyn wine bar and restaurant collaborated with their brewery neighbours and hopped over the ditch to feed Londoners for one night only at Rondo La Cave, a wine bar famous for their rotating selection of international chef residencies. It was a raucous night, defined by wonderful food, a little too much drink and the sheer delight of getting to eat the food from a restaurant that I wasn’t able to nab a table at on a recent trip to NYC.
This is perhaps one of my favourite areas of the pop-up world – when an international chef/restaurant brings their food to another country. The first time I experienced this I think I was 20 years old. I’d recently been on a holiday to New Orleans and had eaten at what, to this day, remains one of my favourite ever restaurants, Compère Lapin. By chance, mere weeks later, the chef, James Beard award-winning Nina Compton, came to my home town of Auckland for a pop-up at Soul Bar and Bistro. It was so special to be able to eat food that heralded such happy memories from a city so many miles away.
And while pop-ups and supper clubs might be great, the next step can often be uncertain or difficult. But for many the aim is clear – to achieve the success that allows them to settle down in more permanent premises. Some of the city’s most revered restaurants have been born from just that. Chishuru in Brixton Market was born from Adejoké Bakare’s popular supper clubs. She then went on to win a competition put on by the market’s owners, the prize being a permanent restaurant space. That was three years ago, and she’s hardly looked back since. A similar trajectory can be seen with Akwasi Brenya-Mensa and his supper club Mensa, Plates and Friends which has now put down roots with restaurant Tatale at the Africa Centre. There’s also The Water House Project, which opened up in Cambridge Heath last year after a series of roaming dinners that cropped up at all manner of venues, from private homes to established restaurants.
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There’s a few I’m yet to try, Rangoon Sisters and their Burmese food being one, Mam Sham and their slightly insane, fever dream dinners that combine comedy with food and surreal props being another. I’ve interviewed the latter – Maria K Georgiou and Rhiannon Butler – and their intention is fairly clear: to make food fun again. This is one of those rare situations where a pop-up serves its purpose best as a semi-permanent thing, the magic remaining in the exclusivity of scarcity (plus, it would be exhausting to put on an event of that scale every day).
This is by no means an exhaustive list, and I’m sure the list of places that have made the jump to permanent restaurant will grow simply based on the immense talent of those hosting pop-ups and supper clubs at the moment. I certainly hope so anyway – it’s such a wonderful way to eat and it’s so integral to incubating creativity and talent in an industry that isn’t exactly known for lifting up the underdog. And you can’t fault the business plan that taps into our deepest fear of missing out – what’s more in-demand than a restaurant that’s here one minute, gone the next?