Why You Won't Find Your New Favourite Restaurant on Urbanspoon
We found a space in the forest, cabin style. The guests were met by the white rabbit and they had to chase him through the forest to find the location. And then there was food hanging from the ceiling.
This is how Chef Robin describes her latest adventure in pop-up dining. Robin is a chef, a sommelier, and the owner of Swallow Tail, a unique catering company in Vancouver that offers "fine dining in unlikely places."
The event was an Alice in Wonderland–themed "secret supper," and it was just one of the many "pop-up" dining events that Swallow Tail has put on in recent years.
Robin started Swallow Tail with the vision of bringing a new type of dining experience to Vancouver.
Swallow Tail is all about collaboration — looking to bring together creative people in the culinary industry and then working on making a creative event that hasn't been seen before,
And Robin isn't the only chef who's looking to shake up the Vancouver food scene these days. All over the city, different types of pop-up restaurants are, well, popping up — often in the most unexpected locations.
Over the last few years, pop-ups have been appearing around Vancouver in places like art galleries, seaside mansions, and farmers' fields. And they've all seemed to disappear as quickly as they've appeared.
Aside from Swallow Tail, there are at least seven other Vancouver "secret supper clubs" — and those are just the ones that have taken the trouble to establish an online presence. Many of these supper clubs are so-called "underground restaurants" that prefer to remain just that — underground — so only a select few diners will be able to discover them.
A Taste of the Vancouver Underground
The secret supper club trend actually comes on the tail of the underground dining trend, which has been around in Vancouver for the past 15 years or so. The main difference between an underground restaurant and a pop-up is that an underground restaurant is operated by a chef out of their own home, while a pop-up usually takes place in a secret or unusual location (although the line between these two concepts can often get pretty blurry).
Beyond that, there are a few other major differences to be aware of. The first is that underground restaurants will usually stick around for a few months or a few years in the same location, while a pop-up usually takes over a location for one day and is gone the next. The second is that pop-ups are also typically licensed affairs, while underground restaurants are not.
This may explain why some underground restaurants prefer to stay out of sight. Although there haven't been reports yet of underground restaurants running into licensing issues in Vancouver, chefs in cities like New York have had their underground restaurants shut down after the authorities found out about them.
While some diners may feel uneasy about eating at an unlicensed venue, Kort is quick to point out that these underground restaurants are all operated by trained chefs who know a thing or two about food safety.
You probably run more of a risk going to your friend's barbecue,
Beyond licensing issues, however, the secrecy is also part of the fun of pop-up restaurants and underground dining. Sometimes even the underground chefs themselves don't know about the other pop-ups in the city.
I know a lot of chefs that are doing [pop-ups] in the city, says Kort, but there are some where I'm like, What's that? It's been happening for two years?
Pop-Ups and Underground Dining Around the World
Vancouver, of course, isn't the first city to experience a love affair with underground dining. In other parts of the world, underground restaurants have been a part of the cultural fabric for centuries, and they continue to play a major role in the international culinary scene today.
Dan Perlman is considered an authority on the worldwide underground dining scene. He is the owner of saltshaker.net, a website that provides a list of underground dining venues in every major city in the world. He is also the owner of Casa Salt Shaker, a restaurant that he operates out of his home in Buenos Aires, Argentina. For Perlman, pop-ups and underground restaurants are definitely not a new phenomenon.
In Latin America they're everywhere and they have been forever. They're just part of the culture, he says.
From Perlman's view, pop-ups and underground restaurants are actually more of a return to what restaurants used to look like than a new phenomenon.
Really, what they're doing is they're coming back, because they used to be everywhere,
Are Pop-Ups for Everyone?
So if pop-ups around the world are making a comeback, who exactly is going to these restaurants? Are they something the common diner can be a part of, or is the pop-up scene reserved only for the foodie elite who can afford to pay the price of admission?
In general, the answer varies from restaurant to restaurant. There is as much diversity in the underground dining scene as there is in any regular restaurant scene, Perlman explains.
Underground restaurants set their own pricing just like regular restaurants do, Perlman says, which means that some pop-ups will be more expensive than normal restaurants, while some will be less expensive.
While most of us have higher costs for ingredients, we generally have far lower overhead and personnel costs,
This same concept applies to the quality of the chefs at underground restaurants, says Perlman.
Some of us are professional chefs, some are home cooks, and everything in between, he says. But even saying that, there are professional chefs who are amazing and others who are poor, and the same can be said about home cooks.
Save On Meats operated as a pop-up restaurant. It's currently a fully licensed diner, a butcher shop and retail store.
So there's plenty of diversity within the scene, but does that mean that pop-up restaurants are something everyone will enjoy? For Perlman, the answer is a definite no.
Sometimes people come and they just don't like the people they're sitting at the table with... There's just not much you can do about that,
There's also no say in the menu, so if you get here and you just don't like the menu, what are you going to do?... We don't have options.
Foodie Fun in No-Fun City
But as much as the mystery of the pop-up can be a drawback for some people, it's also what makes this type of dining experience so exciting in the first place. In fact, forcing people into new (and sometimes awkward) situations is one of the things that gets Kort the most excited about the pop-up movement as a whole.
The fact that many pop-ups in Vancouver have adopted the communal table concept, for example, is something that Kort sees as a big step forward for "no-fun city."
It's something that Vancouver really needs as a city that's known as being somewhat antisocial,
Sometimes sharing a unique experience, even a fairly odd one, with complete strangers is the best way to create social bonds.
And if you don't like the menu, sometimes that can be a good thing too. Pop-ups are great for expanding your food horizons, Kort says.
You'll have people come to an underground supper club and they'll get there and it's a seafood menu and they're like, '@#$%, I hate seafood.' But then you hear them and they're like, 'This is really good and I never thought about trying this.
Which brings us back to the most important factor, at least for the chefs behind these restaurants: the food.
[A pop-up] is not just an event for me," says Kort, "it's a food event. It's always a food event.
For these chefs, it's easy to see what makes pop-ups so special. More than just elaborate dinner parties, pop-up restaurants give chefs the ability to free themselves from the confines of the commercial kitchen and create something truly unique and, hopefully, truly delicious.
Pop-Up Restaurants in Vancouver
- Swallow Tail Secret Supper Club
- No Fixed Address
- Vegan Secret Supper
- The Endless Meal Supper Club
- Tom's Kitchen
- Green Tomato Club
- Plate Invaders
- The Birds Nest
- Save on Meats
With the motto ''Fine dining in the wilds'', the Swallow Tail loves to create custom gourmet experiences while taking people on adventurous trips.
A unique social dining experience that caters to up to 12 guests, who dine at a long, elegant table in the intimacy of the chef's private home.
The menu of this underground dining place changes every week and is posted in advance. Everything is handmade in house,vegan, local and organic.
This private underground supper club located in the heart of Vancouver's historic Gastown believes in good friends, tasty food, big glasses of wine, flickering candles and lots of laughter.
The underground restaurant project, Farm-2-Fork, is a locavore heavyweight. Based in Gastown, F2F offer food parties for groups of six to ten diners.
Newly graduated from Vancouver's Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts, Tom decided to try running a private supper club which has creative freedom to focus on quality for a small number of people.
An underground Supper Club that hosts pop up dining events in fantastic locations, featuring local chefs, farmers, bartenders and wine.
A vegan underground dinner club in East Van. Enjoy the flavours of the season and showcased them with a real dedication to the purity of the vegetables. I will be back. Worth every penny.
An underground restaurant nestled in a Vancouver home that serves brunch, dinners and high tea as well as customized cooking classes and private catered meals.
Save on Meats operated as a pop-up restaurant and test kitchen for perfecting the revamped eatery’s new menu. It's currently a fully licensed diner, a butcher shop and retail store, and a community commissary kitchen. It's a lively environment, representative of the neighbourhood and city in which they operate.
For more information on the Vancouver underground dining scene, you can also watch Secret Suppers of Vancouver, a documentary that first aired on CBC in the summer of 2014 as part of the Absolutely Vancouver series. If you're hesitating, this trailer will definitely convince you:
Meet The Photographer: Kevin Eng
Kevin's passion for photography has encouraged others to see the splendor and beauty of nature right at their doorstep, as he captures the sights of the day, and colors and mystery of world while it sleeps. Many of the subjects of his work are based locally in his hometown in Vancouver, B.C., where he first discovered his fascination with night photography. Kevin is currently working as a music teacher, music director for his church, and landscape photographer.