It could be the best one-night stand you ever had. In today’s economy, enterprising chefs are reinventing the restaurant experience with out-of-the-box options for dining out. Some borrow the kitchens of established restaurants or private homes—or even bring the kitchen to local ranches, vineyards and farms—for a single evening of atmospheric cuisine. Called a pop-up restaurant, it’s part underground supper club and part gastronomical vagary, and it’s become the reservation to get.
The foodie cognoscenti are already avidly following the pop-up Phoenix Supper Club, a menu of movable feasts cooked up by 28-year-old San Francisco chef Tommy Halvorson (formerly of Gary Danko and Bix). The ex-competitive skier isn’t just testing the waters with his roving restaurant concept; he’s quietly producing one of the Bay Area’s most exciting evenings out.
Perhaps best known of his gypsy dinners is the nine-course Loretto. The club’s most lavish offering at $200 a person including tax and gratuity, Loretto is held at a different unusual private residence each Saturday night. After securing a reservation, a guest is given directions to an initial meeting point. One recent evening the spot was J Lounge, the bar inside Traci Des Jardins’s California-French restaurant Jardinière. Patrons were greeted and served champagne, but still weren’t told that night’s dinner location. After small talk with fellow guests, they were whisked by limousine to one of San Francisco’s most storied private residences, the Westerfeld House.
The 28-room late-1800s mansion, referred to as a “freaking decayed giant” in Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and formerly occupied by both a wealthy Czarist refugee from the Russian revolution and a member of the Manson family, isn’t open to the public. But on this night, one of the current housemates gave guests insightful tours (and told ghost stories) as Halvorson overlooked the confines of the Gothic manse’s small kitchen to delicately plate a lobster and yuzu confit with melted baby leeks, braised pork chops with compressed heirloom apples and a cast-iron seared Kobe bavette with roasted black trumpet mushrooms. The unfamiliar space didn’t cramp the chef’s style; throughout the four-hour dinner, each orchestrated bite was better than the last.
“When the economy took a nosedive last year, I guess you could say it would be really hard to get funding for an actual restaurant,” Halvorson says. “Instead of waiting I thought, well, why don’t I adapt to the way things are, and try and make it happen.”
San Rafael chef Leslie Burnside already has a restaurant—which she now adapts to make others happen. The owner of the breakfast-and-lunch spot Theresa and Johnny’s Comfort Food has started holding a rotating-chef event called Night Kitchen at least once a month after her own restaurant closes for the day. “There should be something going on here at night,” she told herself. “I’m tired of (just) cooking breakfast food, so let’s try this.”
Each time, she has a different guest chef prepare a different type of cuisine, offering a menu of dishes under $12 on a first-come-first-served basis (she’ll head up the kitchen if no one else is available). She donates the profits to a local charity or group; recipients have included Ritter House, Hospice by the Bay and Terra Linda High School. A recent Night Kitchen featured chef John Scopazzi, who turned out small plates of roasted salmon cakes with caramelized shallots ($10), veal saltimbocca with prosciutto and sage ($12) and a walnut tart with bitter chocolate ($6).
For Burnside, flexibility is the venture’s big attraction, along with having the chance to explore new dishes and give back to the community while doing what she loves. “I’ve been in this business a really long time,” she reflects. “I don’t get to stretch my cooking skills doing what I do. At Night Kitchen I try to do something I’ve never made. I’m crazy: I have 150 people in for dinner and I’ve never cooked any of it before.”
For diners, she says, the ritual is straightforward: “You sit down, here’s the menu, order. If you want to reorder, reorder. The dishes come out fast and in no particular order, the lights are low, the music is loud. There’s a whole lot of energy that goes into it. I push it as far as I can, being in the suburbs.”
Moving beyond the suburbs is par for the pop-up Outstanding in the Field. Founder and acclaimed artist Jim Denevan began staging his dinners at organic farms in 1999. The idea was simple: dine at the source, where the meal you’re eating began, with the people who grew and produced it—getting to know who’s behind what’s on your plate.
Denevan brings his bus, aptly named Outstanding, to fields, vineyards and ranches nationwide to reconnect diners with the roots of their food. He matches a top-flight chef with a farmer and a winemaker to create a one-night-only restaurant without walls. “We like putting the spotlight on the farmers as well as the star chefs,” says Denevan. “It’s not every day you get to enjoy a meal with the person who planted the beans, raised the lamb, and shaped the cheese on your plate.”
Local venues have included McEvoy Ranch in Petaluma, Devil’s Gulch Ranch in Nicasio, Star Route Farms in Bolinas and Green String Farm in Petaluma. For a recent Outstanding evening at Clark Summit Farm in Tomales, Melissa Perello of the Michael Bauer–lauded San Francisco restaurant Frances teamed with farm owners Liz Cunninghame and Dan Bagley to offer Hog Island oysters, an Alsatian-style onion tart with Marin Roots onions, and Clark Summit Farm pork-and-fennel sausage with steamed Hog Island manila clams—all paired with Paul Hobbs wines.
Each Outstanding outing has a utopian feel, starting with a leisurely tour of the hosting farm followed by a five-course farm-style feast at Denevan’s signature long table set in just the right scenic spot. Diners sit shoulder to shoulder with the food growers and producers, the winemaker and other artisans behind the meal. The $200 admission makes it possible to include all workers involved—giving everyone a seat at the table.