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restaurants � food
mouthing o ff Pop-ups here, pop-ups there, pop-ups everywhere. Square Meal strips away the
hype to see if these oh-so-hip venues are worth shouting about WORDS NEIL SIMPSON
I recently found
on an east London
for my chance to pop
into Fairground. This
promises three oors
of music, debate and (most importantly) food,
to be supplied by di erent contributors each
week. When I arrived at midday there was a
dgeting crowd of optimists outside and a
urry of stressed individuals
milling around. Eventually we
were asked to form an orderly
queue, then told to return
later. I never went back.
This experience was
because pop-ups o er a
di erent type of anticipation to a permanent
restaurant, fuelled by the allure of something
fresh, eeting and nite. Hype ourishes
in such fertile conditions and social media
ensure that it's never been easier to stoke the
re. Building expectations for a new pop-up
is easy, but meeting them is a di erent
matter, making this culinary trend tricky to
navigate. In short, are they worth the e ort?
The potential power of a pop-up is
undeniable. Five years before becoming head
chef at Chiltern Firehouse, Nuno Mendes ran
The Loft Project - a dining experiment that
took place in the same road as Fairground.
The space allowed for a single table of diners
to sample the creations of a guest chef,
keeping overheads low and possibilities high.
One hit act was The Young Turks - a trio of
chefs who proclaimed 'we have worked in
some of the best kitchens in the world, and
now we want to do it our way'.
To prove the point, former Turk James
Lowe recently opened Lyle's in Shoreditch
(see review p.46), while one-time sidekick
Isaac McHale now helms the crowd-funded
Clove Club. Other recent success stories
include Dock Kitchen graduate Stevie Parle,
who now runs hot-ticket Rotorino in Dalston.
And then there are the Pizza Pilgrims -
proof that the pop-up strategy can be a
cunning way of invading chain territory. From
a van, street stall and temporary residency in
Brick Lane, the Pilgrims have moved on to a
permanent Soho address. Co-founder James
Elliot points out that a pop-up meant they
'had a customer base to go to', so did not
need to build a following from scratch.
All of which sounds great, but it hides the
pitfalls of pop-ups. Elliot recalls the problems
caused by inclement weather, while punters
who have visited other venues complain
about food running out quickly, slow or
chaotic service, and arrogantly high prices
- particularly infuriating, given that most
customers would probably forgive wobbles
as long as the whole thing was a ordable.
On the downside, big brands and large
corporations are now starting to jump on
the bandwagon - witness Wahaca's Mexican
installation on the Southbank and British
Airways' temporary restaurant within an
airplane cabin during the London Olympics.
Venues are also coining the phrase simply
to describe seasonal food or drinks, as in a
'pop-up summer bar' where nothing seems
to have popped up aside from some beach
balls, piña coladas and pro t margins.
A successful pop-up can introduce you to
pigeon burgers, deep-fried insects or dinner
in a hot chef's living room. On the other hand,
what's the point of eating in a shipping crate
if the company behind it is loaded? Clearly,
fresh labels are needed for
these temporary enterprises,
because good pop-ups are
Fairground may have
had a false start, but for
entrepreneurial spirit alone
it still deserves respect - and,
yes, another go in the queue.
Neil Simpson is Square Meal's editorial assistant
Pop-ups off er a type of
anticipation fuelled by the allure of
something fresh, fl eeting and fi nite
High potential for fun
'I had dinner at Nuno Mendes' house'
Exclusive and nite
Ahead of the curve
An outlet for promising chefs
High potential for hunger
'Can you come back in two hours please?'
Empty social media hype
An outlet for talentless chefs