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August 01, 2012

World's Best Pop-Up Restaurants

Courtesy of Brussels Dinner in the Sky

Temporary eateries set in intriguing places offer the best new way to eat.

When Copenhagen’s venerated restaurant Noma announced its closure for renovation, René Redzepi, its star chef, had a plan. A Taste of Noma pop-up eatery opened at Claridge’s hotel in London, not so coincidentally coinciding with the summer Olympics, and tickets for the 3,400 available sittings sold out in just two and a half hours.

In the last few years, pop-up retail shops, salons, art galleries and bakeries have taken over hotel lobbies, train stations and department stores. But none of them have had the zeitgeist-y appeal of pop-up restaurants. Equally loved by restaurateurs and diners—and especially embraced by bloggers and tweeters—they are having a moment.

Often, but not always, publicized by social media like Twitter (see the hashtag #popup), Foursquare and Instagram, they usually take over preexisting spaces like a park, a rooftop, a plaza or an existing restaurant or gallery. They rely on buzz. Occasionally they channel local cuisine, like the Secret Teacup Pop-Up in a Clapham, UK, farmhouse, or the fondue tram in Zurich, Switzerland, which leaves the scent of bubbling Gruyère in its wake.

Other times they aspire to give diners a theatrical sense of another place and time; Brighton in Manhattan’s Eventi hotel recreates a Brighton Beach boardwalk-inspired experience. Some, like the worldwide Dinner in the Sky franchise—which serves diners as they dangle 150 feet above a city—look silly but continue to attract big-name chefs like Yannick Alléno and Joël Robuchon.

Architect David Rockwell, whose New York restaurant-design projects include Maialino and Adour, came to the scene early in 2006, when his company, Rockwell Group, transformed the Hard Rock Café into the Bon Appétit Supper Club and Café. “My passion for creating temporary events lies in my love for theater and spectacle,” says Rockwell. “A short-lived experience, such as a pop-up, may have taken months or years of preparation, but the experience can create a powerful and lasting memory.”

Restaurant investors from Tokyo to Houston are increasingly embracing the pop-up idea because low rents, minimum staffing and short “seasons” have led to much bigger profit margins. Kick-starting a new restaurant in New York or the Bay Area can cost half a million dollars, while operating a pop-up usually runs just $2,000 to $5,000 a week. The business model is so popular, event companies specializing in pop-up restaurant management and dedicated pop-up spaces—like San Francisco’s FoodLab—have emerged. And perhaps no city has embraced the trend more than London, which has seen dozens of pop-ups open in places like the London Eye, the National Theatre and Royal Festival Hall.

The results are as delicious as they are profitable. The food tends to be less constricted and edgier. The chefs are younger, the stakes are bigger and there’s more money to play with. Diners ultimately reap the rewards, and the only challenge is booking a table before they all sell out.