Listen up locavores in search of the next edible experience: Berkeleysiders have no fewer than three pop-up dining options, each with their own unique flavor, from which to pick from the first weekend in May.
Friday May 7, self-taught chef Nigel Jones offers his Jamaican cuisine with island classics like jerk chicken, plaintains with black bean sauce and sweet potato fries at his pop-up Kingston 11, (starters $7, mains $11-$14), which runs weekly, at the Guerilla Cafe in North Berkeley. (Kingston 11 is Jones’ postcode from home, Bob Marley’s, in case you’re curious, was Kingston 12.)
On the same night, longtime restaurant industry worker Suzanne Drexhage is hosting a seasonal spring supper ($50, sold out) at Local 123 in West Berkeley. On the menu: Backyard borage cocktail, nettle and sheep’s milk ricotta crostini, local lamb shoulder with artichoke and fava bean ragout.
Saturday marks the debut of culinary newcomers Faiza Farah and Tsedey Seifu, and their Ethiopian home cooking with a modern twist at the pop-up Selam ($25-$35), also at Guerilla. Expect to see the spice burberry, the flat bread injera, and a mostly vegetarian/vegan dish list at this pop-up, named for the Ethiopian word for peace, scheduled to run the first Saturday of the month.
Hungry yet? Secret super clubs have been around since the speakeasy but in recent years, movable feasts such as underground dinners have caught on in the culinary adventurous Bay Area.
These off-the-grid dining ventures, frequently held in spaces without commercial (or legal) kitchens have given way to a new food phenomenon around town known as pop-up restaurants, which are typically held in so-called bricks-and-mortar venues (cafes, clubs, restaurants) with certified (and hence legal) kitchens, though pop-ups can also sprout in private homes and backyards (shh!).
The motivations for pop-ups are as diverse as the people putting on these edible experiments. For cooking newbies it’s a chance to practice culinary craft, for others a labor of love. For veteran chefs it can be a way to keep their hand in the kitchen without the grind of regular restaurant work. Most pop-up chefs appreciate the freedom to use unusual ingredients, try new recipes, and serve food in a convivial and community setting, where live music sometimes adds to the ambiance.
“I like the creative control of the one-off dining experience,” explained Leif Hedendal, a veteran of the underground/secret supper club scene who holds pop-ups at Local 123, including on May 29. “I get to make what I want and source small quantities, say specialty salad greens from Little City Gardens, or wild foods like miner’s lettuce and chickweed, and evoke a season and sense of place.”
What’s in it for the customers? “When it works well it’s a unique, intimate, spontaneous experience without the impersonal nature or alienation that you can feel in a fine-dining establishment,” said Hedendal, who adds that diners feel they get value for money and appreciate the sense of community such events evoke. Communal tables are conducive to conversing with strangers over shared food.
No one interviewed for this story claimed to make big bucks or have quit their day jobs as a result of hosting these temporary ventures, but seasoned “poppers” say they’re able to pay themselves, a small staff, and cover costs, with sometimes a little profit left over. The dinners, often a fixed-price menu, generally cost in the $35-$65 range and cash is often the only currency accepted. Some require advance registration, others take drop-in diners. Most favor the food mantra du jour: local, seasonal, sustainable, organic grub.
Guerilla Cafe began hosting pop-up nights a few years ago; the cafe has featured Japanese, Moroccan, and Mexican cuisine and boasts Alice Waters and Jake Gyllenhaal as past guests. “The pop-up is a way to support our friends and community folk who are enterprising, aspiring chefs,” said Keba Konte, co-owner of Guerilla. “It is also a way to help incubate new food enterprises. Most of the ‘poppers’ want to test out their skills and operations without taking on the investment of opening a restaurant.” That’s true for Jones, who hails from the fashion industry, who hopes to make a go of his Caribbean cooking on a more permanent basis.
Katy Wafle, co-founder of Local 123, attended a pop-up above the cafe she owns six years ago. She sees the events as an opportunity to showcase local talent at nighttime, when many cafes typically go dark. In-house chef Rebecca Stevens runs The Local Table to stretch her savory culinary skills beyond the cafe menu. Fine dining Cal-Med chef David Elias held dine@ pop-up events at Local 123 and Casa Vino last year; he’s exploring an eatery concept that is something between a roaming pop-up and a bricks-and-mortar restaurant. “The pop-up is part of a progressive, emerging trend in the marketplace,” said Elias. “Diners are hungry for outside-the-box restaurant experiences.” What does it take to make an occasional pop-up into an ongoing edible venture? “Great food, tight operations and a hustling marketing team,” said Konte.
The current economy is one reason why pop-ups are increasingly popular, said Drexhage, who went the pop-up route after plans for her own cafe fell through during the recession. Drexhage recently returned to full-time work for Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant. She has worked with the reigning queen of pop-up food enterprises around the Bay Area, Samin Nosrat, who runs the Pop -Up General Store in Oakland and hosts a monthly pop-up feast at Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. “For me it’s an opportunity to show my culinary chops in an environment that doesn’t feel precious or rarefied,” said Drexhage. “It’s about good food, prepared in a collaborative fashion and shared family style. And, of course, they’re a lot of fun.”
Local 123 Cafe: 2049 San Pablo Avenue (near University Avenue)
Facebook page for Local 123 (Check events for pop-up listings.)
Guerilla Cafe: 1620 Shattuck Avenue (near Cedar Street)
Kingston 11, Fridays 6-11, email for reservations
Selam, first Saturday of the month, 6-10, email for reservations
Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and become a fan of Lettuce Eat Kale on Facebook.
Berkeley Bites: Keba Konte [04.09.10]
Berkeley Bites: Alice Waters [10.22.10]
Jake Gyllenhaal to spread the Alice Waters Gospel [12.07.10]
In West Berkeley a cafe opens, a community blossoms [07.16.10]
Berkeley Bites: Samin Nosrat, ex-Eccolo and co-creater of the Pop-Up General Store [06.25.10]