The Bay Area has long been known as a natural hub for innovators, but fewer realize that reputation extends well beyond the tech bubble. In the global food space, the region boasts a rich pop-up restaurant culture that has exploded during the past five years.
After the Great Recession, the Underground Market in San Francisco was the place to be for local food entrepreneurs on a budget. For three years before the city shut it down, hundreds of cooks and vendors sold their homemade dishes to the public through the Market, inspiring spin-off pop-ups and restaurants.
Though short-lived, the Underground Market had a lasting effect on the way San Francisco approaches dining. Even though the economy has improved, the cost of living in the Bay Area remains expensive, and pop-ups have stuck around. Everything from casual Thai take-out to New American fine dining has now nudged its way into a seat at San Francisco’s crowded pop-up table.
The way it's done by the Bay
Pop-up restaurants aren’t new, and they definitely are not unique to the Bay Area. But what sets this culture here apart from elsewhere is the dedicated locals and the challenging real-estate market.
Many well-known Bay Area restaurants have been born from pop-ups or food trucks simply due to the high rent prices in San Francisco. Successes such as Wes Burger, Saison and Wise Sons, among others, once were all plucky pop-ups with big brick-and-mortar dreams.
According to commercial real-estate search engine LoopNet, Bay Area restaurant rent prices average between $40 and $50 per square foot per year. That’s comparable to prices in cities such as Los Angeles and Chicago but is substantially above those in markets such as Houston and Miami.
Rather than investing time and money in a pricey permanent location that may fail, aspiring restaurateurs are going the pop-up route.
They make a deal with a local space, or maybe use a friend’s cafe, get the word out, craft a menu and start cooking. The successful sites build a steady following on social media, stash their money and eventually begin scouting locations for permanent digs. By the time the doors officially open, already-loyal customers are clamoring for the food, and staying afloat is not as challenging.
Pop-ups in action
That’s the model Valerie Luu and Katie Kwan have used with Rice Paper Scissors over the past six years. They both were selling Vietnamese food at the Underground Market when they decided to join forces and premiere a street pop-up during the 2011 Lunar New Year. What initially was just a project has evolved into a full-time partnership.
Their restaurant’s counter-service style doesn’t require reservations. Rice Paper Scissors currently pops Thursdays — offers food that one night each week — at the Mojo Bicycle Cafe, but after a lengthy space-hunt process, Rice Paper Scissors is scheduled to open its first permanent location in 2018, in the Mission district.
“A pop-up allows [restaurateurs] to test the waters and refine their concept before they invest a bunch of money in a space. And also I think it speaks to San Francisco’s experimental culture,” Luu said.
The process used by Sorrel is a bit more buttoned-up. Friends Alex Hong and Brennan Spreitzer started their underground Italian-influenced supper club three years ago and have been popping weekly ever since. Sorrel moved around a fair amount before settling inside a Victorian mansion in the Mission district.
The restaurant takes reservations and offers a four-course tasting menu that is redesigned weekly, features dishes made from only locally sourced organic ingredients and has an optional wine pairing. But when Hong and Spreitzer began popping, the fine-dining model seemed out of reach.
“We were just playing restaurant, and we still kind of are. Every pop-up, we get better at what we’re doing,” Hong said.
But pop-ups don’t always follow a linear trajectory. Emily Lai successfully served Malaysian cuisine at Masak Masak out of Biondivino in Russian Hill for more than two years before taking a step back. The chef has refocused on her private catering business and her consulting work, which at the moment is a wine-tasting-room project.
She hasn’t popped for a while and is getting requests to start up again. The goal is a permanent restaurant, though she hasn’t nailed down a location just yet.
“We’re scouting. That process just takes forever," Lai said. "But I’m excited. I want to go back and start cooking these flavors again."
And sometimes, pop-ups are just plain fun. Maria Lopez and Joyce Conway of BLUD were two friends who missed cooking together, so they started serving eats monthly at Lopez’s full-time place of work, Pizzetta 211. The dozen or so seats at the tiny spot are highly competitive.
Conway and Lopez keep a relatively low profile, with just an Instagram account to announce dates and menus, and they set the mood by playing ‘90s and ‘00s hip-hop and R&B exclusively.
“So many people tell us they had fun [at the restaurant]. It ends up being like a little house party,” said Lopez.
She and Conway are scheduled to open a new restaurant in the next six months, though it won’t be an outpost of BLUD. Not every pop-up event can translate to a daily restaurant, especially ones with high-concept experiences.
Regardless, many restaurateurs are trying. Among the more than 7,600 permanent restaurants in San Francisco, these mainstay pop-ups, along with others such as Big Bad Wolf, Eats by E and Friends With Benedict still manage to redefine the San Francisco dining culture — one dinner at a time.
“San Franciscans like to support new ideas and experiments,” said Luu, of Rice Paper Scissors. “A friend once told me, ‘In an age where everything’s been Yelp’d and mapped out, pop-ups give us a sense of discovery and adventure.’”