Let’s Do…Launch?: In Defense of Boston’s ‘Pop-Up’ Restaurants

Why some of the city’s most exciting dining options are still in extended beta mode.

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Photographs by Kristin Teig

The buzzword “pop-up” has become so overused it’s bordering on clichéd, bandied about indiscriminately to describe everything from guest-chef dinners to nightly restaurant specials. (Note to food publicists: A chef opting to feature more oysters than usual on the menu does not a “pop-up raw bar” make.)

And that’s a shame, because the “underground dining” concept—the creation of a dining experience in a temporary space—can still be fresh, even vital, particularly when the goal is to showcase the talents of would-be restaurateurs who lack the startup funding, staff, and brick-and-mortar space required to open a fully operational place of their own. Think of pop-ups as fast, relatively cheap research-and-development labs for ambitious young chefs.

“How many line cooks and sous chefs have this amazing style of cooking that they’ve developed, but they don’t have the means [to open a restaurant]? This is the way to put it out there and start cooking,” says chef Jeremy Kean, an alum of Rialto. Kean is one half of Whisk, a tasting-menu-only venture that began at Fiore’s bakery, in Jamaica Plain, back in 2011 and in August started a tentative two-month residency on Hanover Street. Eventually, Kean says, he hopes to open a high-end restaurant and a breakfast spot with his pastry-chef partner, Philip Kruta.

Alongside Whisk is a bumper crop of local pop-ups actively looking to open permanent restaurants: Chef Peter Ungár, who runs an underground supper club called the Dining Alternative, is planning a concept called Tasting Counter. Also looking for space is Brasstacks, the New England–focused collaboration from beverage consultant Matthew Schrage and Bondir chef de cuisine Marc Sheehan. And so is Guchi’s Midnight Ramen (pictured), a pop-up turned private-event caterer from O Ya alum Tracy Chang and O Ya chef Yukihiro Kawaguchi.

It could take a while for some of these ventures to find permanent locations—a massive challenge in a landscape where rents are high and liquor licenses skyrocket well into the six figures. In the meantime, however, the people behind them aren’t sitting idly by. “Pop-ups are an ideal situation where you get the opportunity to cook, express yourself, and receive feedback at a much lower front-end cost,” Ungár says. In other words, chefs can use pop-ups as an extended, multiyear soft launch, during which they can perfect their concept at a lower risk.

Of course, pop-ups also allow chefs to attract the attention of potential investors, collaborators, and, crucially, regular customers early on. “In the long term, people want to be part of it—[they] want to come work with us,” Chang says. “There’s really an exchange, a sharing of information and passion.” If this type of dialogue is what can emerge from the pop-up restaurant, we’re going to give that played-out phrase another chance.

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