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“What happens when you put a designer, a chef, and a musician in a room? What happens when you put steak on a plate and turn it on its head?” asks John Fraser, as he explains the origins of his restaurant concept, What Happens When. “It’s an example of creativity, a questioning of results. It’s a matter of rotating the cube.”
What Happens When appeared on the SoHo scene in January 2011, dished out oysters and buckwheat crepes to restaurant-goers for six months, and then disappeared without a trace. The eatery adopted a new theme each month and planned a new menu, design, and sound installation accordingly. Transporting its clientele to a Prohibition Era-joint one day and a winter wonderland the next, What Happens When offered a small selection of five wines and asked diners to organize their own place settings from a cutlery drawer.
After the success of his flagship restaurant Dovetail, Fraser wanted to open a more experimental project. “I had asked myself, ‘What’s next? What if we do something that’s stupid, something that doesn’t make sense, just for the sake of doing it?’” he says.
All over Manhattan, “pop-up” restaurants are following the trend of opening with a bang and closing after a limited run. In Midtown, a five-day cookie shop adhered to this pattern, as did Chinatown’s Madame Wong’s, a temporary nightclub. Opening a pop-up can be a strong publicity move for chefs seeking to gain exposure before looking for other opportunities. Landowners who want to house a more permanent enterprise may offer pop-up owners a short-term lease in order to make a profit before developing a more established business.
“I see two categories of pop-ups—commercial ones and creative ones,” Fraser says. “In a commercial pop-up, you build it [the enter- prise] for cheap and charge as much as possible. You pack people in, since people love things that are going away, things that are there for a limited time, and then tear it down. A creative pop-up is about self-expression and discovery. You’re constantly trying to figure out what the next move is.”
This season will see the opening of Mis- sion Chinese Food, a West Coast crossover that will operate out of the Lower East Side. Owner Danny Bowien designed his pop-up dive in San Francisco to deliver to any part of the city, with the intention of donating the proceeds to charity. The menu features affordable no-frills Chinese food, with a variety of slow-cooked Pop-up design by Metrics Design Group for What Happens When
meat dishes at its core. San Francisco cooks will work at the New York venue on a rotating schedule, doling out staples such as salt cod fried rice and chilled soba with ham broth.
You’ll also find Filipino pop-up venue Bar Kada seated in the East Village alongside competitor Maharlika, which has since gone permanent. Bar Kada, open only on Sundays, runs out of First Avenue’s Ugly Kitchen and offers a menu of eggs with garlic fried rice and tender fried milkfish. Owner Aris Tuazon opened the storefront as a temporary venture while looking for another space in the neigh- borhood—and, in the meantime, stirs up a sumptuous chicken noodle soup flavored with ginger and saffron.
Outside New York, pop-ups are setting up shop in the most unlikely of residencies, including the Boston-based Fiore’s Bakery, a spot that turns into fine dining house Whisk by evening.
So what fuels the pop-up trend? Opening a pop-up allows chefs to be more spontaneous in that they are free to test-drive new menus, themes, and approaches to dining—with food stands running out of such diverse locations as Grand Central Terminal and Mizu Salon. The pop-up presents chefs with an opportunity to cut loose from the routines of established restaurants and also challenges them to produce something innovative, unique, and usually a tad more exquisite. The process is frequently “intense,” Fraser says, as restaurants are under pressure to showcase specialty items and captivate public attention with a limited amount of resources. “Setting up and developing over and over again is the only way to learn,” Fraser says.
But for customers, the pop-up seems to feed a taste for novelty that extends beyond the restaurant industry. The fact that pop-ups are open for only a short time serves to increase their appeal. Stores, parties, and supper clubs are following in the “now you see me, now you don’t” pattern, turning a quick profit by tapping into the predictable desire of consumers to catch the latest phenomenon before it flames out. “It’s taking the idea of a restaurant and turning it into a theater performance with a limited engagement,” says Mitchell Davis, vice president of the James Beard Foundation, a non-profit culinary organization.
It’s hard to say how long the pop-up trend will last, but for now it seems we’re free to dig in.
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