Pop-up restaurants show off spontaneity and fresh cuisine

On Thursday, the Interfraternity and Panhellenic councils will once again host Food Truck Wars, a gastronomic event for charity.

Plenty of participants will be there to lend a hand for your gluttonous revelry. Never tried biryani, the classic Indian rice dish, or a key lime cupcake? There’s a chance they could be available on Thursday night with competitors like Bollywood Bites and Sweet E’s Bake Shop.

But let’s be honest: Food trucks are no longer trendy so much as they’re an established part of the Los Angeles dining scene, here to stay for as long as people crave greasy tacos and paper-plated Korean barbecue.

Food trucks line up near University Village daily, and a day rarely goes by without some campus organization bringing a food truck onto Trousdale.

This explosion can get a food columnist thinking: What do food trucks mean to the dining scene today?

Food trucks have birthed what I consider occasional dining — fleeting, hidden or purposely under-publicized experiences.

It makes sense, then, that the most passionate eaters are slowly dismissing food trucks and embracing pop-up dining.

Pop-up restaurants are ventures that usually exist only for short periods of time — sometimes a night, sometimes a week, sometimes a few months — within another restaurant or retail space. And like those ubiquitous food trucks, you never know where or when you might encounter a pop-up restaurant.

In Los Angeles, LudoBites is the most famous of all. Since 2007, the restaurant has been traveling on chef Ludo Lefebvre’s whim: Though it has often been situated in various areas around Los Angeles, the ninth installment just concluded a two-week affair in Hawaii.

If you’ve never heard of pop-up dining and are suspicious of just how in-demand these experiences are, consider this: The seventh incarnation of LudoBites booked all six weeks’ worth of reservations in just 60 seconds.

The overhead and maintenance required to create and run a traditional restaurant — development, rent, management — can be financially and emotionally tolling. It’s why the restaurant industry is often considered among the most difficult to succeed in, and why pop-ups can be appealing alternative to owners.

For the diner, the experience can be more intimate at a pop-up. It’s also a more concentrated celebration of food, with limited, carefully determined menus crafted by chefs for like-minded food enthusiasts. Pop-up dining can also promote the convivial group-dining experience that is often lost in this metropolis.

These are benefits seen at Venice’s Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, a pop-up located on ever-trendy Abbot-Kinney Boulevard. The menu, in the pop-up tradition, is modified often, depending on what’s available at the day’s markets. In February, the restaurant’s success prompted a six-month extension of its initial six-month contract.

As non-established businesses, pop-up restaurants are also usually unassuming. Downtown’s Le Comptoir, pocketed among the warehouses and colorless office buildings of the Fashion District, doesn’t exactly scream “Come in! We’re open.” In fact, the pop-up operates out of Tiara Café, so you may not realize you’ve arrived at Le Comptoir at all.

Occasional dining exists on a much greater scale as well, far beyond the nomadic kitchens of Venice and tiny havens of Downtown.

One of the nation’s most written-about restaurants, Chicago’s Next, thrives on the concept of impermanence, changing its menu and theme dramatically every few months. The year-old restaurant has already converted itself from a grand Parisian dining experience of 1906 to a “Tour of Thailand” and is now serving a menu of recreated recipes from the late elBulli, the Spanish restaurant considered in its heyday to be the world’s best.

And California chef Thomas Keller even replicated his acclaimed Napa restaurant, The French Laundry — down to its famous blue door — at the massive London department store Harrods in October. For 10 days, London got to taste a bit of the creative Northern California cuisine that has stormed the U.S.: heavy on vegetables, light on seafood, lighter on meat.

Be it from the efforts of a few independent restaurateurs trying to break onto the dining scene or as the product of celebrity chefs with wanderlust, occasional dining marks a new brand of dining elitism. Reservations are exclusive, but so are the restaurants’ lifespans. And the hype is spread through that most fashionable of public relations — word of mouth.

So where better than Los Angeles, with its heightened mix of trendsetters, trend followers, scrappy upstarts and shameless gossips, to serve as a national hub for the pop-up dining movement?

Ironically, if this pop-up trend lasts much longer — likely, as it shows little sign of stopping — it might just go against everything trends and pop-ups stand for and be here to stay.


Bernard Leed is a junior majoring in narrative studies. His column “Amuse-Bouche” runs Wednesdays.