Getting a seat at a pop-up restaurant—one of the biggest food trends of 2011—might not be as difficult as scoring a seat at Rao's, but it's close. Nationwide, chefs are using temporary restaurant spaces to experiment and create entirely new dining experiences, only to shut down or change menus after only a few days or months. Because what pops up must pop down, access to these unique dining experiences will be highly limited, and only those in the know will be able to snag a table. Here are some of the country's most anticipated pop-ups to come. Plan your meals accordingly.
Ending February 26: Dan Moody's Relate in San Diego
San Diego's first pop-up restaurant, Chef Dan Moody's Relate, will close this month after a successful but too-brief 23-day run. The menu changes nightly, though diners can expect a contemporary French menu with at least five courses. More clues: A recent menu featured seared local redrock with a white bean puree, "Crispy Escargots on Toast," and a "Mascarpone Mousse Napoleon" with dragon fruit.
Relate Restaurant, 1010 S. Coast Highway 101 #103, Encinitas, California, (858) 367-3709
January 25 to October 25: John Fraser's What Happens When in New York
John Fraser, chef and owner of Dovetail, just launched a "temporary restaurant installation" in SoHo that apparently is named after a thought bubble. The menu at What Happens When will change monthly; until February 25, it will include hearty dishes to warm your winter of discontent: potato skins with a wheat beer fondue, a "hunter's plate" with "pig parts," and lamb. What happens when next month comes around is still TBD.
What Happens When, 25 Cleveland Pl., New York City, (212) 925-8310
March 7: Laurent Gras' Mardi Gras dinner at Locanda Verde in New York
Chef Laurent Gras—formerly of Chicago's triple-Michelin-starred L20—plans to have a Mardi Gras-themed dinner at Locanda Verde the day before Fat Tuesday. On the menu: New Orleans classics, including crawfish, shrimp, and gumbo. If all goes well, the restaurant may host additional pop-ups.
Locanda Verde, 377 Greenwich St., New York City, (212) 925-3797
Late March (predicted) to March 2012: Grant Achatz's Next Restaurant in Chicago
Grant Achatz, whose molecular gastronomy launched a thousand Michael Voltaggios in search of liquid nitrogen tanks, will open Next Restaurant in Chicago in late March. Achatz envisions Next as a vehicle to travel to specific times and places. While he plans to keep the restaurant open for at least a year, the menus will change every three months. First stop for all diners-slash-time travelers: Paris, 1906, with dishes culled from the 1903 cookbook of one of France's most celebrated chefs, Auguste Escoffier. No word on whether Picasso will make an appearance.
Next Restaurant, 955 W. Fulton Market, Chicago
November: Thomas Keller at Harrod's in London
Later this year, Thomas Keller of The French Laundry and Per Se will bring his acclaimed cuisine to England. The chef will take over space inside Harrod's department store for just 10 days; he's revealed no other details, other than to say that this is strictly a pop-up and he has no plans to spread his empire to the U.K.… yet.
Other upcoming pop-ups on our radar:
• The man who sparked the trend, Los Angeles' Ludo Lefebvre, is planning the next incarnation of his wildly popular LudoBites. Also in Los Angeles, Test Kitchen, a permanent space where a rotating cast of chefs like Top Chef alums Michael Voltaggio and Ilan Hall popped into the kitchen for a night or two, closed late last year but will re-open this spring. Details of Test Kitchen's sequel are scarce, but the creators promise to redefine the pop-up concept and to introduce a community aspect to the endeavor.
• Up in San Francisco, a Test Kitchen-like idea is being developed via Proxy in the Hayes Valley neighborhood. Additionally, Jeremy Fox, who helmed Ubuntu in Napa Valley, is planning a series of pop-up dinners around the Bay Area. Fox's diners will taste-test recipes for his upcoming cookbook, Seed to Stalk: A Modern Culinary Handbook.
• And finally, Top Chef's Dale Talde will host at least one night of bodega fare at his appropriately named Bodega in New York's Bowery. If he stays true to his tweets, pretzel sandwiches will be on the menu.
Tien Nguyen is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. More of her work can be found here.