Pop-up restaurants have proved a pretty enduring foodie craze, but as prices rise, quality suffers. It's time for an end to all the fuss.
Pop-up restaurants have proved a pretty enduring foodie craze, but as prices rise, quality suffers. It’s time for an end to all the fuss.
What is a pop-up restaurant?
Where have you been, dah-ling? The pop-up restaurant craze has swept across the country, with make-do eateries blooming in unlikely locations from front-rooms, to warehouses, gardens, houseboats, garages, roof-tops... even roof-tops of garages!
The point of the pop-up restaurant, as an offspring of the recession, was always to provide a fun, alternative meal in a relaxed setting.
The food was supposed to be good quality home-cooked with a little added something, like love or, lacking that – personal flare.
Husband and wife Rachel and Chris Rowley demonstrate this original template with their fantastically popular and rapturously reviewed Edinburgh suppers. These seat just eight people, so are not greedy and make no claims on being a restaurant, instead taking time to put the honey and walnuts in the soda bread.
But a slick soiree a la Rowley is unfortunately not always what you get when you sign up to a more commercially driven temporary restaurant gig.
Puffed up with importance, this type of pop-up restaurant seems to have got lost along the way.
The Pale Blue Door….
I went to one of London’s most infamous pop-up restaurants, The Pale Blue Door, in a secret nook of the East End the other Saturday.
This is the fifth incarnation of this excitable moving feast and brainchild of set designer Tony Hornecker.
Despite already a bit bored by people’s obsession with these trendy fleeting fancies, yawn, I was looking forward to the experience. I was expecting some visual titillation, a wonky table and some good hearty grub; the online menu boded well with a line-up of greek salad, roast beef, fruit crumble. Simple foods perhaps, but satisfying, and if the Pale Blue Doorists were churning out the same formula night after night, it must be a tight ship. Right?
This time, The Pale Blue Door was spread through an artist's bohemian quarters and garage down a non-descript alley off Kingsland road. The tables were scrunched in tight next to each other, with some peering precariously down from a make-shift second floor, while the walls and ceiling were covered in stuff, some arty, some the sort of stuff I've been trying to get rid off for years, so don't really fancy having to look out when I'm out.
Once seated at a tiny little table in a curious converted garage, my three fellow diners and I quickly stole a mini heater to cut out the draught. Brrr.
A gin later we were given a big serving dish of cucumber, tomato and crumbly feta and left to serve ourselves. The self-service was fun and refreshing, the salad not so much.
We got no bread, but a little light entertainment from a man in a woman’s body suit and such eyelash reinforcement his eyes looked like prunes. He was the drag queen entertainment for the night, like a limp Julian Clary.
Galloping hunger was finally met by the main course of ‘roast beef with crème freche horse radish, potato salad with herb vinaigrette and seasonal vegetables’.
Oh the potatoes – a massive barrel of them, enough to frighten Ireland, of boring size and colour with little more than a lick of butter.
The beef was thickly cut and stringy like the poor cow had been strangled and kept clinging on for dear life to my teeth, while the cauliflower cheese was a disconcerting Kraft slice orange.
I am not precious and none of this would have been taken to heart, if I didn’t feel we were being sold it under some snaz-pants pretence.
‘This is honest, arty eating you’re lucky to be a part of’ we seemed to be told, just because the bathroom hadn’t been cleaned and still contained the former occupant’s toothbrush.
Plus it’s not as if we got to stuff ourselves for a snitch. There was a £35 ‘contribution’ – a funny way to term compulsory payment, most of which had already disappeared in the deposit. And then we got stung £3 for each gin and tonic we’d been carelessly quaffing, not realising they were extra when the choice of ‘red wine or gin and tonic?’ was offered at the start.
The bill came to over £40 each, which is not cheap. You can eat in a plethora of permanent places, with a choice of food and vodka (gin makes me depressed) for £40, so it did seem steep.
What about the experience?
You could argue we’re paying extra for the experience, but the word ‘restaurant’ throws me off somehow and I’m thinking food, food, food.
Don’t get me wrong I loved the quirks, the quilts proffered for cold people (of which there were a few), the disco balls, babies’ wellies, velvet robes, brocaded waistcoats and bike helmets strewn about the place.
I loved the fact we all ate at the same time, the same thing, giving us a glorious sense of school time unity, but the school time food just snagged a bit in my goodwill, and my teeth.
If somewhere claims to be a ‘restaurant’ the food has to have a bit more care than you’d give it at home on a lazy Sunday, whereas this definitely had less.
‘Can I have some mustard?’ I asked one of the fripperies fripping around only to get a blank startled stare until he finally returned with some Colmans in an egg-cup.
Would it really have been so much trouble to give each table some mustard, salt and pepper in advance?
Like anything, the quality of pop-up restaurants will vary. For example, you can catch a great pop-up like The Summerhouse in Maida Vale, offering white-washed floors, a view of the canal and scrumptious fish.
Likewise I'm sure many unpretentious homes that fling open their doors are top-notch. There are even guides if you fancy giving it a whirl yourself like openfordinner.co.uk.
But a lot of temporary, arty-farty restaurants are just riding on the fact they’re here today, gone tomorrow and leaving us with very little to remember in between.
Give me four solid walls, and a chef that’s not wearing drag anyday; this hyped up, priced up craze has run its course.
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