The logistics of timing review visits are typically pretty straightforward: I aim to include a weekend and weekday meal, and I do my best not to show up when the restaurant's closed. But deciding when to stop by Skelly and the Bean, the subject of this week's review, was complicated by the kitchen schedule that chef-owner Zephyr Paquette's adopted.
On Monday and Tuesday nights, Paquette bequeaths her restaurant--she refers to the venue more precisely as a "kitchen incubator"--to chefs who need space for their side projects, or want to test a culinary concept's viability. Kitchen lending isn't new: Since the first pop-ups popped up in London in the mid-2000s, the practice has become so institutionalized that it's likely to become the recession's most lasting restaurant innovation. There are now production companies devoted to staging pop-ups, although plenty of Seattle restaurants have figured out for themselves how to hand over the keys to the kitchen. The Seattle Times recently ran a handy list of a half-dozen local restaurants that change up their cooking staffs or cuisine come Monday night.
When I set out to review Skelly, I wrestled with whether it would be more appropriate to review the restaurant as it exists Wednesday through Sunday, or focus on the Monday and Tuesday diversions, since it's still relatively rare for a new restaurant to make pop-ups a fixture of its business plan. (For Paquette, the arrangement is as much driven by philosophical as financial considerations: "I don't have time to go to school," she told Voracious. "It was kind of the idea that, "Oh if I wanted to learn Russian cooking and what it really is, why don't I get the best Russian chef and let them have the place and peek over their shoulder?"")
I ultimately decided not to make a review visit during a pop-up, since Paquette isn't responsible for the food and ambiance when another chef's in charge, and her name would be associated with the review, no matter how many disclaimers I inserted. Also, I'm not a fan of "I ate this, but you can't," write-ups, which is one of many reasons I never cover visiting chef events and wine dinners. So while I'm intensely curious about what happens on pop-up nights, I didn't feel it was proper review fodder (My curiosity may not be sated soon: Thus far, I've been unable to score a reservation.)
Still, I think the pop-ups are a hugely important part of the Skelly story, which is as compelling as anything Paquette's currently plating. What I love about the permanent pop-up schedule at Skelly is how well it dovetails with the restaurant's inbred inclination to serve as a community gathering spot. Many pop-ups - and certainly all of the pop-ups staged by fancy production companies - are designed to feel like Big Events, underlined and exclamation pointed. Again, I haven't attended a Skelly pop-up, so maybe the dinners are red-carpet-worthy, social media storms, but my guess is that they're more casual affairs that give regulars and neighbors a chance to experience something new.
In a culture that specializes in specialization, with every cable channel appealing to a niche audience and people tailoring their media diets to coincide with their beliefs, it's exciting to encounter a return to the old one-screen movie theater model, in which consumers are routinely exposed to the unexpected. And it's even better when those meetings occur in Paquette's comfortable dining room.