Around late April or early May, ideas began to stir. It had been over a month since much of the restaurant industry’s workforce was furloughed and sent home. There was no clear timeline for reopening. And so, stimulated by a need for funds, a desire to get back to feeding people, the opportunity to create something more personal, or all of the above, cooks and pastry chefs and bakers and bartenders started whipping stuff up at home and selling it online. Bread was perfected in home ovens, meal kits were assembled from tiny kitchens, freezers overflowed with cookie dough. Word spread on Instagram, payment was accepted via Venmo, and pre-orders were placed to be later delivered on bike or by car to addresses around the city, the maker and the customer meeting for a moment of masked exchange, or not at all, in favor of a contactless drop-off.
I wrote about this trend for Eater back in June, and it’s one that’s continuing to play out. In NYC, recent additions to the roster include Pecking House—hot chili fried chicken with a waitlist by a former Eleven Madison Park sous chef—and Dacha, where chefs Trina and Jessica Quinn offer pelmeni and pastry for pick up from their Bed-Stuy apartment.
As summer settled in and cities started to re-open, outdoor dining became a lifeline for restaurants. Some industry workers were rehired, others found new gigs. Diners and imbibers were back in the streets, eating and drinking and socializing. That’s when the pop-up scene started to really take off. For starters, there still weren’t enough jobs to come back to, but also, certain people weren’t interested in returning to a long-broken industry, nevertheless in the midst of an ongoing pandemic. Instead, they broke out on their own—often pairing up with a partner or friends—to serve Filipinx foods and sourdough bagels, roving from bar to bar, or taking up residence in friends’ restaurants. This was also a time of social unrest, in which record numbers of protestors marched across bridges and down avenues in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The overlap is no coincidence; it was a moment of empowerment for restaurant folks, too, who were motivated to use their talents to give back, and to demand better. Many of these pop-ups not only launched as fundraisers but have built activism into their models. Ha’s Dac Biet, the Vietnamese street food pop-up I wrote about for TASTE, is of this mold.
I went to LA for a few weeks in August, where I encountered the most eye-opening pop-up yet. After stumbling upon Side Pie on Instagram, I put in an order for that weekend: two pizzas, each baked in a home-built wood-fired oven in Kevin Hockin’s Altadena backyard, and a slab of Sasha Piligian’s lemon meringue pie. We pulled up to his curb, texted the number provided in my receipt, and received a prompt reply that the pies would be out momentarily. Suddenly they appeared from a slot carved into Hockin’s fence underneath a sign that read “PIZZA PICKUP.” It was a glorious pandemic-era restaurant experience and one that ultimately led me to write about the new wave of pop-ups proliferating across the country, and what they’re all about—published this past Thursday in Bon Appétit.
What counts as a restaurant experience? It’s a question that’s forever up for debate, and yet any answer was simpler in the Before Times. Perhaps it includes take-out and delivery, maybe not. I believe that any culinary experience crafted by skilled cooks and imbued with hospitality should be considered in restaurant terms. And that’s especially true today; in a world where a wonderful variety of dining options is being powered by those who were flung from traditional restaurants the moment Covid hit.
I love dining out and I miss it dearly, but if the pandemic has taught me anything about restaurants and those who power them, it’s that they don’t need to be confined to a dining room and a kitchen. Even when this all comes to an end, I’d like to see a paved way—i.e., old laws loosened and new ones enacted—for this medley of models to carry onwards. While some of these pop-ups will secure leases down the line, a sustainable and compelling future of restaurants cannot be defined by brick-and-mortars as the be-all and end-all. Instead, a revitalized industry should grant workers expanded career paths and work-life flexibility while offering diners a more diverse array of experiences. This is the new wave of restaurants. If you’ve yet to dig in, what are you waiting for?
Make: Skye McAlpine’s Pasta chi Vruocculi Arriminati—linguini with cauliflower, saffron, raisins, pine nuts, anchovies, & bread crumbs (Bottom right)
Assemble: this “sophisticated stoner snack” crafted by Carla Perez-Gallardo of Lil’ Deb’s Oasis (Top left)
Outdoor dining: Dimes’ Power Bowl on their Canal Street patio (Top right)
Delivery: Souen’s Veggie Curry Plate with Maze Rice (popular to contrary belief, the East Village location remains open!)
Some other great pop-up pieces…
Plus, an insightful interview with Kin Khao’s Pim Techamuanvivit:
🎧 — “Beyond the Wheat” on Point of Origin, an episode about the whitewashing of wheat and the emergence of the whole grain revival
🎬 — Stanley Tucci’s Big Night (1996), in my opinion, the best restaurant movie ever made. Please hit me up with other contenders!
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