Review: Pop Start

Will “pop-up” restaurants prove enough of a force to forever alter the culinary landscape?

New restaurants traditionally come into being in one of a few ways. For example, an aspiring executive chef pulls together a group of investors, begs the bank for a lifetime's worth of loans, and hires friends from around town as waiters, cooks, and bartenders. Or a cook and her family gather as much money as they can, buy out an existing business, make only as many changes as they can afford, and open quietly, praying that the neighborhood discovers them before the collection agencies do.This is the way the industry has always done it. It's also part of the reason why so many undercapitalized, debt-burdened new places fail within the first year or two—which is what has made the temporary restaurants-within-other-people's-restaurants that have cropped up in Seattle over the past three years so enticing. Ranging from one-off events to semi-permanent establishments, these "pop-ups" place chefs in restaurants or bars that have an off night or an underperforming kitchen. With no mortgage to pay or permanent staff to sustain, these chefs can entertain guests above-ground with just expense money and an e-mail list or Twitter account.Operating like weekly or monthly clubs, Seattle's pop-up restaurants are the bromeliads of the restaurant ecosystem, living high in the trees, absorbing water and nutrients from the air instead of their hosts. Pop-ups like Pian Pianino (housed in Sitka & Spruce), Emmer & Rye's Tuesday Suppers (in Art of the Table), Tako Truk (14 Carrot Cafe), and Castleberry's (Summit Pub) may have run their course, but their influence continues to resonate in the restaurant community.Take Nick Castleberry's pop-up at Summit Pub, which ran from the second week of September until last Saturday. Every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night, Castleberry, a whippet of a man with tattoos out to his jawline and a 20-year cooking résumé, would write up a six- or seven-item menu and hang it next to a corner of the bar as if he were a fortune-teller taking up residence in the nook of a tea shop.The 37-year-old chef gilded his reputation working alongside Matt Dillon at Sitka & Spruce. But at the Summit Pub, he was a one-man band, cooking with a hot plate and a tabletop oven, preparing everything from pork-belly chili to grilled cheese with butternut-squash soup. Everything cost less than $8. Customers would order, pay in cash, and buy a pint separately from the barman. Within 10 minutes, Castleberry would hustle the food over to them himself.Dishes were simply conceived—a salad of chicories with shredded duck confit and oranges, or beef brisket with semolina—and better than two-thirds of the high-end meals most of us had eaten in the previous month. The dinners seemed to be a decent success, but Castleberry abruptly announced last Thursday via his Twitter feed (@nickcastleberry) that he was going on hiatus until spring.Nick took his playbook from fellow Sitka & Spruce alum Cormac Mahoney, whose three-month-long Tako Truk in Eastlake blew up big. A decade-long resident of the neighborhood, he was sitting at the Eastlake Zoo one afternoon when he looked out the window at the coffee cart Terry Proios runs outside the 14 Carrot Cafe. Mahoney thought about how the one thing the Zoo was missing was bar food, and looked into the possibility of running a cart. The health-department requirements, however, seemed too burdensome. But he then realized, "Terry's out [of the kitchen] by 2 in the afternoon. Ding!"Mahoney and friend Bryan Jarr, who runs a consulting firm, put together a proposal for Terry: Mahoney and Jarr would pay her some rent to use 14 Carrot's kitchen a few nights a week while the restaurant was closed. They had their own business license but wouldn't have to obtain new health-department permits, and they promised not to let any customers in the door to protect Proios from a liability standpoint. She immediately said yes.Tako Truk opened the week before Memorial Day, with Mahoney in the kitchen and Jarr taking orders. They publicized the Thursday–Sunday event through photocopied posters, a Web site that looked like it had been coded by a third-grader (Mahoney's work, which he cheerfully disparages), and a Twitter feed. Within a month, there were lines and 20-minute waits for Mahoney's Asian-Western tacos ($5 for three) and soups, and the Zoo filled up with noshers.The pair originally planned to stay open through the end of Daylight Savings Time, but Jarr burned out around Labor Day and Mahoney decided he didn't want to continue their experiment alone. Now Mahoney is trying to figure out what to do with the buzz he created."You have this capital," he says. "Are you going to waste it or are you going to do something with it? [This moment] is sort of a call to grow up or go back to the line. I don't know if I can go back to the line, though."Other chefs have forthrightly used the pop-up model to create advance buzz for a permanent business. A couple of years ago, Justin Niedermeyer, the founding chef of Cascina Spinasse, held multicourse dinner parties at Sitka & Spruce on Sunday nights when owner and friend Matt Dillon took the day off. Niedermeyer's Pian Pianino suppers became legendary, helping Spinasse take off the moment it opened.Inspired by Pian Pianino/Spinasse, Seth Caswell, former chef of Stumbling Goat, began holding Emmer & Rye Tuesday Night Dinners this past fall at his friend Dustin Ronspies' restaurant, Art of the Table. Caswell has been planning—and talking up—Emmer & Rye for several years now, but the economic downturn stymied his early quest for investors."I've known for a while that my brick-and-mortar [restaurant] is coming," he says. "And so I asked myself what are some ways to work out dishes, build up clientele, and generate some momentum heading into the opening?" The answer: For 10 weeks, every Tuesday, Ronspies turned his kitchen, dishes, and even some of his wines over to Caswell. Caswell in turn would send to his e-mail list advance notice of the prix-fixe dinners—all centered on local and sustainable ingredients—and customers would vie for one of the 24 seats.The list started at 300, but grew 50 percent after a few stories about the dinners appeared on local blogs. The experiment seems to have worked: By the time Caswell announced last week that he'd soon be taking over the old Julia's on Queen Anne (1825 Queen Anne Ave. N.), he had hundreds of pop-up customers—and potential regulars—to talk up the new place for him.In many ways, pop-up restaurants are the natural evolution of the underground restaurant scene that captured the nation's imagination in the mid-aughts. This summer, inspired by underground-gone-legit restaurateur Michael Hebb, Sasquatch Books editor and avid food Twitterer Whitney Ricketts launched monthly New Guard dinners to "get new talent in front of audiences who are hungry for new faces."Ricketts collaborates with three other curators: Damien and Sarah Jurado find musicians for each event, and Joey Veltkamp is responsible for the art. Their December dinner brought together pastry chef Dana Cree and hip-hop MC Fatal Lucciauno at the Canoe Club in the ID, with diners surrounded by gothic drawings by Amanda Manitach. At $40 per attendee (plus money for the cash bar), the dinner sold out an hour after Ricketts sent an announcement to her thousand-address list."The dinners break even," Ricketts says. "It's something we do not to put money in our pockets but to be involved in Seattle's convivial and inclusive community."Castleberry, Caswell, and Mahoney's pop-ups may be gone for now, but the possibilities they present are fascinating. Are more chefs going to shed the dream of owning their own brick-and-mortar restaurant? Are we going to see vacant restaurant spaces operate like dance clubs, hosting weekly or monthly nights promoted by individual chefs? Given the difficulty of setting up and running a mobile food truck in Seattle, is the pop-up a more durable model?For his part, Castleberry sounds sanguine about his upcoming four-month hiatus. "[Summit Pub owner] Sam [Mungia] and I have been talking for the past few weeks," he says. "It's real slow in that neighborhood in the winter...and the bar gets crazy in spring and summer, so I thought I'd move on to other things."Nevertheless, he's proud of what he was able to do in four and a half months. "It's the first time in my life I got to do something I felt was completely mine. I served good quality food at a price people could afford, and supported all my local farmers. I didn't make big coin, but it maintained my lifestyle."food @seattleweekly.com

 
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