Pop-up Eating: Restaurants, reinvented

Kate Feld

Pop-ups and supper clubs refresh the model for progressive new ways to eat.

I’m bored of restaurants – aren’t you? Like other jaded foodies of my ilk, simply going out to eat isn’t enough to get my pulse racing anymore, and those clever catering industry people know this. So in an effort to attract our custom, the stage set gets ever more spectacular, the food genre mashups ever more outré (Japanese-Italian, anyone?), the sourcing of artisan ingredients ever more name-droppingly particular. It’s enough to make you stay in and cook every night.

So it’s easy to understand the current mania for transient eating ventures – from pop-ups to supper clubs to one-night-only feasts – that is currently sweeping the nation. They put the focus back on the quality of the food, run by people whose passion is for feeding people. The chefs can focus all their energies on that, without having to pay for premises or endure the gruelling slog of actually running a restaurant, day in and day out. The customers get the thrill of belonging to a select club and, ideally, enjoying top quality food without funding all that usually comes with it. On the downside, you’re taking your chances with things like food safety, and the quality varies. Enthusiastic amateurs can be amazing cooks, but sometimes the transgressive buzz of eating a “secret” meal in a stranger’s front room can’t compensate for lacklustre food.

2014 has already been a banner year for supper clubs in the North

So far, 2014 has already been a banner year for supper clubs in the North, with pop-ups popping up by the score. In Manchester, in-home supper clubs like Seasons Eatings, The Spice Club and Arepa Arepa Arepa have established customer bases, and new ones are constantly appearing; including a super-secret collective of student squatters serving meals in abandoned buildings, which we’re not cool enough to know any more about than that.

In Leeds, there’s Dinner at The Manor and Afsaneh’s Persian Kitchen, while the delightful Chez Shamwari serves tea in a period house in Saltaire. In Sheffield, Komal Khan is introducing people to a whole new world of Pakistani cooking at the highly regarded Sheffield Supper Club. Suddenly, it seems like every foodie or food blogger out there wants us to come round for dinner at theirs. See this helpful directory website for evidence – in some parts of the UK you could eat at a supper club every night of the week if you wanted to.

“The Y generation – you, me, our peers – are searching for unique experiences,” says foodie Bonnie Yeung. “Our parents had the 60’s, with sex, drugs rock ‘n’ roll. We’ve had recession and unemployment. For us, supper clubs and pop-ups are signifiers for ‘the alternative’ and the fringe. We’re chasing authenticity, doing something that no one else has done- we don’t want shared experience but something we can squirrel away just for us – which is why the temporary or private, anti-restaurant experience is so popular.”

Yeung should know. She recently teamed up with Manchester’s Finest to hold a secret supper club in Chinatown, the first in a series featuring the kind of uber-authentic food you can’t get at your local Chinese takeaway. Yeung, whose family owns the Yang Sing group and who has become a champion of the neighbourhood, says the idea was cooked up by a community group to combat perceptions that the area is unfashionable or inaccessible. More troublingly, she says, Chinatown is under threat, and is trying to see off a betting shop invasion. “We want people to understand the way that time slows in Chinatown, to meet its people and hear their stories,” she says.

Yeung says savvy restauranteurs are capitalising on pop-up mania by trying to offer an anti-restaurant restaurant experience. At Friday Food Fight, a series of ‘food raves’ held at Manchester’s Campfield Arcade this month, street vendors compete for customers with mobile contingents from city restaurants including Solita, Ning, Lucha Libre and Umezushi. In Liverpool, the wonderful Camp & Furnace event space hosts regular food slams, banquets and one-off meals featuring a mix of itinerant food vendors and city restaurants. Whether food raves are your thing or not, it’s never been a more interesting time to be eating in the North.

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