The pop-up restaurant trend—in which chefs create temporary restaurants, sometimes in unusual places—continues to thrive, and it’s easy to see why. They’re fun and novel, and they offer an experience that shakes up the typical restaurant experience, both for diners and chefs.
Pop-ups first gained popularity among chefs that didn’t have their own restaurants, but in recent years celebrity chefs have been embracing the idea as well. Case in point: When The French Laundry in Napa Valley closed late last year for a dramatic multi-month renovation, chef Thomas Keller didn’t send his staff home, he opened a pop-up called Ad Lib. And instead of trying to recreate a sort of French Laundry in exile, he came up with something totally different, a restaurant focusing on carefully considered, beautifully prepared versions of country club classics—a play on the pop-up’s location at Napa’s Silverado Resort & Spa.
Related: Behind the Scenes in the Napa Valley
Thomas Keller isn’t the only big-name chef embracing pop-ups. Rene Redzepi, Marcus Samuelsson, Heston Blumenthal, and Gordon Ramsay have all brought high-end dining to the pop-up scene in recent years. Why do they do it? And why are they a true treat for diners?
They’re Fun: Pop-ups are where great chefs go to play. In many cases, it’s just about the closest you can get to going to a chef’s house for dinner—you get to see what ingredients, techniques, and dishes are stoking their culinary fire right now. And the playful spirit extends beyond the food, to music that doesn’t always stay obediently in the background and servers that seamlessly blend thorough knowledge with a sense of humor and an easy-going passion for food.
Reservations Are (Often) Easier to Make: Pop-ups may have a certain cache among diners-in-the-know, but they don’t have the long-standing reputation of their coveted counterparts. While seating may be limited, chances are you’re competing against a much smaller group of people for space at the table. And because pop-ups sometimes extend beyond their originally envisioned lifespan (as is the case with Ad Lib, which recently announced it would stay open through late fall), if you’ve got it on your radar already, you can jump on new chances to book as they arise.
They’re Limited Time: There’s something special about the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t aspect of pop-ups. Their limited-time nature have a particular appeal with people who like to work their way through a chef’s entire portfolio of restaurants. It’s not even the bragging rights, it’s often the chance to taste the fleeting theme that the chef is playing with. At Ad Lib, the country-club vibe extends right out to tableside Caesar salad. In March, New York City’s Blue Hill Restaurant turned itself into WastED, a three-week pop-up devoted to the theme of food waste and reuse, and hosted an impressive parade of celebrity guest chefs, including Grant Achatz and April Bloomfield.
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(Photo: Christine Sarkis)