Pop-up Restaurants Popping Up Around Berkeley

by Sarah Henry on April 29, 2011 · 25 comments

in berkeley bites,food businesses,food events,restaurants

Top left: Chef Nigel Jones plates at the pop-up Kingston 11 (courtesy Guerilla Cafe), Top right: Finishing touches for main meals at dine@ at Local 123 (courtesy of dine@). Bottom left: Pop-up diners at Local 123 (courtesy dine@). Bottom right: Pop-up chef Suzanne Drexhage chats with a guest (courtesy: Skyla Olds).

Listen up locavores in search of the next edible experience: Berkeleysiders have no fewer than three pop up dining options, each with their own unique flavor, from which to pick from the first weekend in May.

Friday May 7, self-taught chef Nigel Jones offers his Jamaican cuisine with island classics like jerk chicken, plaintains with black bean sauce and sweet potato fries at his Kingston 11 Pop Up, (starters $7, mains $11-$14), which runs weekly, at The Guerilla Cafe in North Berkeley. (Kingston 11 is Jones’ postcode from home, Bob Marley’s, in case you’re curious, was Kingston 12.)

On the same night, longtime restaurant industry worker Suzanne Drexhage is hosting a seasonal spring supper ($50, sold out) at Local 123 in West Berkeley. On the menu: Backyard borage cocktail, nettle and sheep’s milk ricotta crostini, local lamb shoulder with artichoke and fava bean ragout.

Saturday marks the debut of culinary newcomers Faiza Farah and Tsedey Seifu, and their Ethiopian home cooking with a modern twist at the Selam pop up ($25-$35), also at Guerilla. Expect to see the spice burberry, the flat bread injera, and a mostly vegetarian/vegan dish list at this pop up, named for the Ethiopian word for peace, scheduled to run the first Saturday of the month.

Hungry yet? Secret super clubs have been around since the speakeasy but in recent years, movable feasts such as underground dinners have caught on in the culinary adventurous Bay Area.

These off the grid dining ventures, frequently held in spaces without commercial (or legal) kitchens have given way to a new food phenomenon around town known as pop-up restaurants, which are typically held in so-called bricks-and-mortar venues (cafes, clubs, restaurants) with certified (and hence legal) kitchens, though pop ups can also sprout in private homes and backyards (shh!).

The motivations for pop-ups are as diverse as the people putting on these edible experiments. For cooking newbies it’s a chance to practice culinary craft, for others a labor of love. For veteran chefs it can be a way to keep their hand in the kitchen without the grind of regular restaurant work. Most pop-up chefs appreciate the freedom to use unusual ingredients, try new recipes, and serve food in a convivial and community setting.

“I like the creative control of the one-off dining experience,” explained Leif Hedendal, a veteran of the underground/secret supper club scene who holds pop ups at Local 123, including on May 29. “I get to make what I want and source small quantities, say specialty salad greens from Little City Gardens, or wild foods like miner’s lettuce and chickweed, and evoke a season and sense of place.”

Faiza Farah (L) and Tsedey Seifu (R) of Afro Urbanites hold their first pop-up at Guerilla Cafe next week./Photo: Adenike Amin/Poster:Nick James

What’s in it for the customers? “When it works well it’s a unique, intimate, spontaneous experience without the impersonal nature or alienation that you can feel in a fine-dining establishment,” said Hedendal, who adds that diners feel they get value for money and appreciate the sense of community such events evoke; communal tables are conducive to conversing with strangers over shared food.

No one interviewed for this story claimed to make big bucks or have quit their day jobs as a result of hosting these temporary ventures, but seasoned “poppers” say they’re able to pay themselves, a small staff, and cover costs, with sometimes a little profit leftover too. The dinners, often a fixed-price menu, generally cost in the $35-$65 range and cash is often the only currency accepted. Some require advance registration, others take drop in diners. Most favor the food mantra du jour: local, seasonal, sustainable, organic grub.

Guerilla Cafe began hosting pop-up nights a few years ago; the cafe has featured Japanese, Moroccan, and Mexican cuisine and boasts Alice Waters and Jake Gyllenhaal as past guests.”The pop-up is a way to support our friends and community folk who are enterprising, aspiring chefs,” said Keba Konte, co-owner of Guerilla.  ”It is also a way to help incubate new food enterprises. Most of the “poppers” want to test out their skills and operations without taking on the investment of opening a restaurant.” That’s true for Jones, who hails from the fashion industry, who hopes to make a go of his Caribbean cooking on a more permanent basis.

Katy Wafle, co-founder of Local 123, attended a pop-up above the very cafe she owns six years ago. She sees the events as an opportunity to showcase local talent at nighttime, when many cafes typically go dark. In-house chef Rebecca Stevens runs The Local Table to stretch her savory culinary skills beyond the cafe menu. Fine dining Cal-Med chef David Elias held dine@ pop up events at Local 123 and Casa Vino last year; he’s exploring an eatery concept that is something between a roaming pop up and a bricks-and-mortar restaurant. he’s exploring an eatery concept that is something between a roaming pop-up and a bricks-and-mortar restaurant. “The pop-up is part of a progressive, emerging trend in the marketplace,” said Elias. “Diners are hungry for outside-the-box restaurant experiences.” What does it take to make an occasional pop-up into an ongoing edible venture? “Great food, tight operations and a hustling marketing team,” said Konte.

The current economy is one reason why pop-ups are increasingly popular, said Drexhage, who went the pop-up route after plans for her own cafe fell through during the recession. Drexhage recently returned to full-time work for Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant. She has worked with the reigning queen of pop-up food enterprises around the Bay Area, Samin Nosrat, who runs the Pop -Up General Store in Oakland and hosts a monthly pop-up feast at Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. “For me it’s an opportunity to show my culinary chops in an environment that doesn’t feel precious or rareified,” said Drexhage. “It’s about good food, prepared in a collaborative fashion and shared family style. And, of course, they’re a lot of fun.”


Local 123 Cafe: 2049 San Pablo Avenue (near University Avenue)

Facebook page for Local 123 (Check events for pop-up listings.)

Guerilla Cafe: 1620 Shattuck Avenue (near Cedar Street)

Kingston 11, Fridays 6-11, email for reservations

Selam, first Saturday of the month, 6-10, email for reservations

This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside.

You might also like:

Berkeley Bites: Keba Konte
Alice Waters’ 40 Year Campaign For Good Food
Berkeley Bites: Samin Nosrat, Ex-Eccolo Chef and Co-Creator of the Pop-Up General Store
Learning to Love the ‘hood on Foot: One Edible Adventure at a Time
Wild Man Iso Rabins: A New Food Entrepreneur

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Melanie Haiken April 29, 2011 at 9:24 pm

Gosh, these sound like fun. On top of the good food, I get the feeling there’s more of a convivial private-party atmosphere, much like the atmosphere at a house concert vs. a club. Since I don’t always like the impersonal formality of restaurants, this appeals greatly!


Sarah Henry May 1, 2011 at 6:36 pm

Yep, M, that’s an apt description of how these pop-ups tend to play out. I think you’d like ‘em too. Wanna come with some time soon?


averagebetty May 2, 2011 at 4:09 pm

Hope you are enjoying your journey home from Camp. Looks like there is a lot of deliciousness to get home for…

Great to meet you!
averagebetty´s last [type] ..Food &amp Wine Festival Palm Desert Video


Sarah Henry May 3, 2011 at 10:11 am

Hi Sara, Thanks for chiming in. Love your blog moniker, by the way. And yes, we’re spoiled for good food in these parts. it’s true.


NoPotCooking May 5, 2011 at 11:08 am

There’s something just so fun about this concept in general. I don’t know of any in my area, but maybe the trend will spread.
NoPotCooking´s last [type] ..Buffalo Roll


Sarah Henry May 5, 2011 at 11:16 am

Keep me posted, NPC.


ChristineGL May 5, 2011 at 11:23 am

This is a fascinating concept – and not one I’d heard of before though it makes perfect sense for so many reasons. Thank you for introducing us to it!


Sarah Henry May 6, 2011 at 6:18 am

Pleasure, ChrstineGL. Hope something similar pops up in your ‘hood.


MyKidsEatSquid May 5, 2011 at 12:01 pm

Like a well organized party, huh? Almost sounds like flash mob for foodies.


Sarah Henry May 6, 2011 at 6:18 am

Love this way of thinking about pop ups, MKES, very clever.


Alexandra May 5, 2011 at 1:48 pm

I had no idea what a pop up was. Wish we had them on Cape Cod!
Alexandra´s last [type] ..Should Rental Property Require a Business Licence


Sarah Henry May 6, 2011 at 6:19 am

Coming soon, Sandy, no doubt, so be on the look out.


Jane Boursaw May 5, 2011 at 9:04 pm

This sounds like a blast – and a delicious blast at that. Love the party-like vibe.
Jane Boursaw´s last [type] ..Project Rebirth- Documentary on Ground Zero Scheduled for August Release


Sarah Henry May 6, 2011 at 6:19 am

Agreed, Jane. There’s a sense of occasion about these dining events.


Alisa Bowman May 6, 2011 at 10:23 am

You just introduced me to a new trend. I didn’t even know there was a such thing as a pop up restaurant until I read this!
Alisa Bowman´s last [type] ..Save Your Marriage- part 6


Sarah Henry May 6, 2011 at 1:13 pm

Well, LEK aims to inform, Alisa. Keep your ears open and your eyes peeled for pop ups coming to your community.


Ruth Pennebaker May 6, 2011 at 1:00 pm

love this idea! Hope it will be making its way to Austin soon.
Ruth Pennebaker´s last [type] ..Almost Speechless


Sarah Henry May 6, 2011 at 1:14 pm

Ruth, since Austin leads the way in food trucks and food swaps, I’d be surprised if poppers weren’t setting up shop as I type.


Casey@Good. Food. Stories. May 7, 2011 at 4:56 am

I love the idea of a pop-up restaurant in theory, but in practice, it just stresses me out. I already don’t have enough time/funds to get to all the restaurants in my area (NYC) – now I have to worry about missing the temporary ones too?!?! Someone give me another stomach, like a cow, so I can try it all.
Casey@Good. Food. Stories.´s last [type] ..The Perfect Grilled Cheese Sandwich


Sarah Henry May 7, 2011 at 11:06 pm

You’re hilarious, Casey. And honest. I don’t think anyone should feel stressed out about an overabundance of food opportunities.

Sampled Selam tonight and found the flavors in their vegetarian stew a soothing mix of heat and sweet. Samosa-like apps stuffed full of lentils were just the kind of comfort food I was after. The place was, ah, popping, too. Great party-like vibe inside.


merr May 7, 2011 at 5:16 pm

How incredible is this??! I imagine it would be a fun way to build a community, kind of like a progressive dinner but with various eateries popping up week to week, one kind of leading to the next.


Sarah Henry May 7, 2011 at 11:08 pm

There’s an idea, merr. Word is the gals behind Selam want to get a food truck serving Ethiopian eats up and running. Could see that finding a loyal following.


Jeanine Barone May 10, 2011 at 8:42 am

I love pop-ups of all sorts, whether it’s a pop-up shop or a restaurant. We have a bunch of pop-up restaurants in NYC, including ones that are so secret when you’re waiting in the lobby to take the elevator we were told not to tell anyone where we were headed.


Donna Hull May 15, 2011 at 4:08 pm

I’ve never heard of this food trend but it sounds like delicious fun.
Donna Hull´s last [type] ..And the Winner of the Experience British Columbia Giveaway is…


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