pop up dining dc

This Town is Poppin’ (Up)

Want to try something without fully committing? For software, there’s a free trial. For careers, there’s an apprenticeship. For relationships, there’s Tinder. And for restaurants and bars, there’s a pop-up.

Restaurant and bar openings happen at breakneck speed in DC these days, but pop-ups have become just as rapid-fire, and require the stamina of a professional eater to track them all. There are even different breeds of pop-ups to keep straight, from one-time events to long-standing arrangements to themed takeovers. Luckily, the rise of the pop-up is good for both proprietors and customers.

Patrick Coyne says he always wanted to start his own business during his years working in the fields of management consulting and venture capital. When the time came, he decided to break the ice by hosting pop-ups at various restaurants and bars in DC.

“To me, pop-up events are a great way to mitigate the risk of starting a food venture,” Coyne says. “Doing pop-ups is similar to what is referred to in the tech world as an MVP (minimum viable product). You are able to get your product out in the hands of your customers and test how the market reacts.”

His concept, Laoban Dumplings, began popping up this January, and he plans to continue through the spring, with the possibility of opening a brick and mortar in the fall. Coyne is putting a modern spin on classic Chinese dumplings, inspired by his time teaching in China after college. During the pop-up phase, his team is creating collaborative dumplings that feature a culinary specialty from their host restaurant, like a khachapuri dumpling at Compass Rose and a Reuben dumpling at On Rye.

The benefits of a pop-up for the new concept are numerous. But establishments hosting pop-ups don’t get a bad deal either.

“We are promoting the event, so we are helping to both raise awareness about the host and bring in more people through the door,” Coyne adds. “For places that don’t offer food, we are able to keep people there longer that might otherwise leave to eat elsewhere.”

Pete Angevine, an owner and founder of Little Baby’s Ice Cream out of Philadelphia, says he made pop-ups an essential part of the company’s growth strategy from the beginning.

“They are a low-cost, nimble way to get in front of an audience without making a giant financial investment that most small start-up businesses don’t have,” he says.

Little Baby’s has now entered the DC market as a continuing pop-up at Union Market, in the space where Trickling Springs, their dairy provider, operates Monday through Saturday.

“Since they are Mennonite, they do not do business on Sundays,” Angevine says.

Last summer, Little Baby’s began popping up in Trickling Springs’ stall every Sunday.

“It’s been phenomenally successful and helpful to all parties involved. We subsidize their rent on a day they aren’t utilizing their space, we get a great opportunity to introduce our brand and product to the DC market, and the crowds at Union Market aren’t stuck without ice cream. It’s a win-win-win.”

Other pop-ups, like the new breakfast pop-up from Colony Club and DGS Delicatessen, are partially about business, but also about family.

“We’re friends and cousins with the owners of DGS, so it seemed like a cool opportunity to work together,” says Max Zuckerman, owner of Colony Club.

The two establishments have teamed up to serve coffee and bagels on weekday mornings at DGS, when the place is typically closed.

“We want to be a gathering place for the community, so the longer our doors are open, the better,” says Nick Wiseman, owner of DGS. At the same time, Colony Club is reaching a new audience. They plan to continue the arrangement for as long as people keep stopping by.

For customers, pop-ups provide a unique opportunity to sample a new establishment before it opens. That idea spawned New Kitchens on the Block (NKOTB), a food event at Mess Hall created by founder Al Goldberg and food writer Nevin Martell. The event, happening on March 19, is in its second year.

“I jokingly call NKOTB ‘the king of pop-ups,’ because it just takes the concept to the next level,” Martell says. “It can be time-consuming and expensive to go to every pop-up around town. NKOTB allows you to hit a bunch of them at once at a reasonable price.”

He’s not exaggerating. For $65 (or $95 for VIP), guests can sample 11 of the most anticipated new concepts. As a culinary incubator, events like this are part of Mess Hall’s mission.

“NKOTB allows restaurants to connect with DC’s most passionate diners, the food press and even potential investors,” Martell says. “Chefs and restaurateurs build buzz for their projects on all levels, so by the time they open their doors, they already have a fan base who believe in what they do and want to support it. There are so many restaurants opening these days that it helps participants stand out and get noticed.”

Taqueria del Barrio, a concept from the owners of DC Empanadas, Anna Bran-Leis and Shawn Leis, will be serving authentic Mexican tacos at NKOTB. Since the name translates to “of the neighborhood,” running local pop-ups was a natural fit. A portion of the proceeds from their first event at neighboring Hank’s Cocktail Bar were donated to Latin American charities. After their appearance at NKOTB, they plan to open in Petworth later this month.

The sons of the founding partners of Indique in Cleveland Park are introducing their fast-casual Indian concept, RASA, at the event. Rahul Vinod and Sahil Rahman began working on the concept in 2014, but the idea had been brewing since they were high school students working for their dads’ restaurants. Still in the pre-construction permit phase, NKOTB is a chance for the team to showcase their customizable Indian cuisine to future customers. RASA’s opening is slated for late summer or early fall of this year in Navy Yard.

Hospitality vets Michael Turner and Alexandra Bookless Turner recently moved back to DC, and are having fun testing out a new concept, June, named after their daughter. Their food and beverage pairings, driven by the ingredients of the Mid-Atlantic region, popped up at Mess Hall in February, and they’ll be making an encore appearance during NKOTB. They’re playing the rest by ear.

“We are having fun with it right now, and will see where it will go,” Bookless Turner says.

Minibar alum Johnny Spero has also been popping up across DC ahead of his new solo venture, Reverie, opening later this year in Georgetown. At NKOTB, he’ll give guests a preview of his modern American cuisine.

“I’m taking all of my time spent at restaurants that look at dining as an experience and [am] finding a way to translate that into a more relaxed and casual atmosphere,” Spero says of Reverie.

The NKOTB lineup will also provide sneak peeks of The Salt Line by Kyle Bailey, Unconventional Diner by David Deshaies, Lupo Verde (Palisades) by Matteo Venini, Flamant by Frederik de Pue, Dio Wine Bar by Stacey Khoury-Diaz, Katz District Coffee by Kyle Katz and Brian Edling, and the forthcoming Shaw location of Sugar Shack Donuts.

But pop-ups aren’t always about practicality. Sometimes they’re just pure fun. Like the Streets of Osaka event coming to Zentan on March 15, in collaboration with Sushi Taro. Japanese chefs Yo Matsuzaki of Zentan and Nobu Yamazaki of Sushi Taro will bring the flavors of Osaka to DC for a one-night indoor street festival. Tickets are $45 for general admission, and $60 for VIP.

Zentan will be bustling with street food stalls, sushi, sochu and sake tastings, cocktails, streamed sumo wrestling matches, art, and live music. VIPs get in early to get their hands dirty in sushi rolling classes. Among other things, the food stalls will feature Chef Matsuzaki’s specialty: robata, which he learned as a college student and part-time cook in Osaka. The Japanese cooking technique is similar to barbecuing.

The two chefs hope this event will provide a new experience for guests.

“I wanted to work with another authentic Japanese chef to further bring and introduce Japanese culture to Washington, DC,” Matsuzaki says. “I believe that’s part of my job as a native Japanese.”

Chef Yamazaki adds, “Japanese festivals and street foods have so much variety depending on which region you grew up in. Since Chef Yo and I come from different areas with different backgrounds, it’s exciting to bring different ideas and put them together to make one fun event.”

Though not from Japan, pop-up guru Derek Brown is a self-professed Japanophile. After his wildly popular holiday- and Stranger Things-themed pop-ups, he’s just launched a Japanese cherry blossom pop-up at Mockingbird Hill and Southern Efficiency that runs through April 15. Guests of Brown’s previous pop-ups know not to expect the bars to look anything like their original selves. But do expect lines.

“I don’t know how many people do it exactly like us,” Brown says. “That’s not shade. I’ve seen pop-ups with a little decor and thematic menus and they’re great, but we dig deep. What we do totally transforms the bars. We say pop-up, but there’s another term we haven’t figured out yet. It takes months and a huge commitment – financially and physically.”

The space will be draped in pink, with an origami crane chandelier, lucky waving cats, Super Mario Bros. memorabilia and a backdrop of cherry blossom art. Cocktails and food continue the theme, with drinks like What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Smaller and katsu sandwiches. Bartenders become Mario Bros. with red caps and overalls. Ultimately, Brown and the team get a kick out of doing these themed pop-ups.

“We get to be a little more whimsical and serve a broader group of people,” he says. “Our bars are usually built around products and ingredients we love and, that’s still there, but the emphasis is on the theme. I mean, we get to serve straws with mustaches and serve drinks in Neko tiki mugs.”

Pop-ups of all shapes and sizes have come and gone, but they’ve each attracted their own curious visitors.

“The people of DC love to support their own,” RASA’s Vinod says. A pop-up “really allows the people of the city to connect with new brands and feel a personal connection to them.”

Spring Pop-ups

DGS Delicatessen: 1317 Connecticut Ave. NW, DC; www.dgsdelicatessen.com
Laoban Dumpling: Various Locations; www.laobandumplings.com
Mess Hall: 703 Edgewood St. NE, DC; www.messhalldc.com
Mockingbird Hill: 1843 7th St. NW, DC; www.twitter.com/drinkmoresherry
Southern Efficiency: 1841 7th St. NW, DC; www.angie-salame-yshd.squarespace.com
Union Market: 1309 5th St. NE, DC; www.unionmarketdc.com
Zentan: 1155 14th St. NW, DC; www.zentanrestaurant.com

Lani Furbank

Lani Furbank is a freelance food, drinks, and lifestyle writer based in the D.C. area. She was born and raised in Northern Virginia, but stays true to her Welsh-Taiwanese heritage by exploring new places and experimenting with recipes from around the world. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @lanifurbank or read her work at www.LanisCupOfTea.com.