Boston: The Pop-Up Restaurant Trend

[Photographs: Jessica Leibowitz]

"Cooking in foreign kitchens and using a food truck to produce a five-course meal for 50-plus people comes with its own set of challenges."

How many times do you eat dinner in a restaurant every year? 50 times? 100 times? Many urbanites eat out two or three times a week, and for a lot of them, the restaurant experience can get a little... boring. Perhaps it's this ennui that's driving the pop-up restaurant trend that has been sweeping, well, not the nation, but at least a few culinary-minded cities.

Underground dinners and supper clubs, most of them illegal (you can't charge people for food from an unlicensed kitchen) have been around for a while. Pop-up restaurants are like that, but with more legality: they're licensed and promoted to the public, and usually headed by a high profile chef. They move around the city (or sometimes from city to city), opening for a a few days at a time, giving the chef a chance to experiment, play around, and introduce his food to the public in a completely different way each time.

In the Boston area, restaurants are well-regulated affairs, and obtaining the necessary permits and licenses for even a temporary one can be a lot of work. To get around some of these requirements, the partners behind Boston's first organized pop-up restaurant venture, Eat (@EatBoston) have, at recent events, leased a food truck or relied on existing health-inspector-approved kitchens. Of course, cooking in foreign kitchens and using a food truck to produce a five-course meal for 50-plus people comes with its own set of challenges.

Will Gilson and Aaron Cohen mingle with guests after dessert is cleared.

Will Gilson, a notable Cambridge chef (Garden at the Cellar) and Aaron Cohen are the Eat partners. Adaptability and versatility are key throughout the execution of each dinner. What could be more adaptable and genius than using a food truck as a mobile kitchen?

And while every venue is designed to be a distinct experience, the partners still think of the whole body of their work as one restaurant. Just as you expect a consistent level of service when returning to a brick and mortar restaurant, Cohen and Gilson feel the same rules apply in pop-up territory.

The pair are planning on debuting a new location monthly, but are open to adding spontaneous events in-between. They are close-mouthed about the particulars, though a factory was mentioned as a potential venue, and they anticipate more guest chef appearances—Jamie Bissonnette (Toro and Coppa) was on the line in the food truck at Eat's pop-up debut at import furniture store Mohr+McPherson's South End showroom.

The February event was announced, and sold out in one day.

I attended a recent pop-up event at Bloc 11, a sizable coffeeshop in Union Square, Somerville. Going into it, I was a little skeptical of the venue choice because I can eat in there any day of the week, and to my chagrin Sunday's menu was 100% vegetarian (the Friday and Saturday seatings were more omnivorous), and I'm not.

Nevertheless, it was impossible for me to ignore the enthusiasm of my fellow pop-uppers. Unlike a normal Boston public experience, complete strangers were chatting with abandon. Even before the main course was served, speculation as to Eat's next venue was rampant. The lack of meat notwithstanding, it was a singular experience.

The food was good, but not flawless. The pop-up kitchen was bursting at its temporary seams; some items that should have been hot were not, and at our table of seven, six of the Mushroom Cassoulets had no mushrooms. Our waiter, who'd never waited tables before, was happy to get us a communal mushroom plate to make up for it, and of course, everyone thought that was grand. Even without the smokey mushrooms, the beans were the star of the show, showing a strong meaty flavor even without meat.

Hummus and pickled beach mushroom toasts were one of three passed appetizers.

For Gilson, the experience seemed novel and fun, which I really appreciated. I also understand the limits of serving 70 people simultaneously. The question is whether you're willing to pay $60 for an event that while singular and fun, will probably not knock your socks off food-wise.

Maybe the pop-up formula will have some experienced restaurateurs scratching their heads: Expose the moving parts and add some chaos, a little confusion, and high drama, and the jaded restaurant patrons of Boston will eat it up and ask for more. But for a lot of the jaded restaurant patrons in Boston, it might be just enough to make going out for dinner exciting again.

Check out the slideshow for a course-by-course rundown of the meal »

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