Underground dining pops up in Chicago

By Matt Watson

For four nights, Logan Square Kitchen, 2333 N. Milwaukee Ave., was transformed into an elegant dining room, where patrons were treated to a five-course meal by a collaboration of chefs from restaurants around the city. Main courses included pheasant, venison and lamb, with a choice of pineapple crumble or tapioca pudding topped with mint cilantro syrup for dessert.

The event was over as quickly as it began, becoming a memory for the diners who were lucky enough to sign up in time for “Glimpse,” a pop-up dining experience that LSK hosted from April 6 to 9.

Alternative dining has been a growing trend in Chicago over the past two or so years. In the case of a pop-up, a restaurant will close down for one or more nights to invite a guest chef to create a unique menu of his or her choosing. Underground dining is a similar concept, except chefs keep the menu secret, and guests have to be invited to the event. While all establishments host them differently, most use email lists or Twitter to attract patrons, which adds to an event’s selectivity.

“This gives it a little more exclusivity and excitement,” said Alexander Martin, chef at J Lafayette Catering, who hosted a pop-up at Delicious, 308 W. Erie St. “People are used to going out and picking from a menu. With a pop-up, it’s like, ‘What’s going to be on the menu this time?’ It’s more invigorating when you’re eating that meal, so it leaves [customers] wanting more.”

According to Martin, because the scene in Chicago is new, most chefs improvise their events, and there is no set standard for hosting a pop-up. For his Easter Brunch at Delicious on April 23, the menu was divided into set courses, and tickets were $29 a piece. Reservations were taken by email.

For “Glimpse,” diners were given a few choices for every course, which cost $10 each. The five courses were fish, veggie, meat, cheese and dessert. “Glimpse” took reservations from Twitter.

Some restaurants contact chefs about coming to do a pop-up or collaborate with friends in the industry to stage them. Martin said in this business, it’s not uncommon for people to help one another out.

According to Kyle Ronat, special events manager at Delicious, the success of these events has inspired more restaurants to try the concept.

“It’s a trend that’s definitely taking off in the city,” Ronat said. “I think it has incredible potential to grow into something big.”

Other Chicago restaurants have hosted pop-ups, such as Chalkboard, 450 W. Menomonee St., and Birchwood Kitchen, 2211 W. North Ave. Lula Cafe, 2537 N. Kedzie Blvd., holds an annual Halloween pop-up. Some include multiple guest chefs who each cook a certain dish, and others have a longer menu for diners to choose from.

At the other end of the alternative-dining scene is the underground dinner party, which is similar to a pop-up in many ways. Both set up shop for a few nights, and both use social media to book reservations. However, Abe Conlon, chef at X-marx, a traveling underground dining host that creates pop-ups, said the two have distinct differences.

“A lot of times, pop-up dining has become synonymous with underground dining,” Conlon said. “Our underground dinners are invite-only, usually for just one night. People buy tickets, we have a limited capacity and everyone eats at the same time.”

According to Conlon, underground dinners are held anywhere from an art gallery to a loft space. Some are hosted at restaurants, but most are in private buildings. X-marx doesn’t release the location or the menu until the day of the dinner but will provide attendees with wine recommendations in advance because the dinners require guests to bring their own bottles. Guests generally sit around a communal table.

“People like the adventure and not knowing what they’re going to eat or who they’re dining with,” Conlon said. “It adds another dimension to a dining experience. You’re meeting new people and trying new things you wouldn’t normally order off the menu.”

Conlon said X-marx’s goal is to enrich the culinary landscape with meals unavailable at a typical restaurant. For instance, X-marx is hosting an undisclosed upcoming dinner that will be a Greek and Vietnamese mash-up Conlon calls “Greekmanese,” something that would be almost impossible to find anywhere else.

Alternative dining originated on the coasts in New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco by celebrity chefs, Martin said. It is unclear who hosted the first popup in Chicago, but the concept has gained popularity in the past two years.

With this addition to Chicago’s already thriving culinary scene, “foodies” and average diners have a plethora of new foods to try. Entrees like BBQuail consomme with cheesy mac aren’t found on the average restaurant menu.

“It certainly gives people an array of options I don’t think they had before,” Ronat said. “There are so many great restaurants in the city, but this gives diners a chance that only happens once.”

With pop-ups, patrons encounter new types of food that aren’t standard at most restaurants because the items are too expensive for the typical establishment to carry in bulk, Ronat said, such as goose fat-confit, wagyu cheek and honey crisp tart.

Zina Murray, chef and owner of LSK, said there are a variety of factors that led to the rise of alternative dining in Chicago, one of which is the current state of the economy.

“With the banking industry meltdown and credit tightening up, people can’t get loans to build restaurants,” Murray said. “So people are becoming more creative in coming up with ways to make an amazing dining experience.”

Ronat said at Delicious, the restaurant and chef share the profits and benefit from the experience.

“We realize a lot of chefs don’t have the financial means to cover food costs for a meal for 75 people,” Ronat said. “So we want to make it possible for chefs from any background to come in and be able to do this event.”

According to Martin, doing guest appearances at restaurants is a great way to gain a following for an up-and-coming chef.

“I’ve discovered my passion is I like to cook a lot of different things,” Martin said. “I embrace this concept because I show people I can do a lot of different menus and cook just about anything.”

For chefs, doing pop-ups and underground dinners are ways to keep their craft interesting. At a typical restaurant, cooks constantly make the same meals. These alternative ways of cooking allow them to experiment, with dishes such as the duck tongue tacos Conlon has whipped up in the past.

“Essentially, we’re opening a new restaurant every single time,” Conlon said. “We’re creating new menus every night. It challenges you.”

Chefs and restaurateurs who have experimented with these pop-ups and underground dinners say the only direction for this trend to go is up. Conlon said his email list continues to fill up. While hosting these events is no easy task, the reward is worth it.

“This is by far one of the hardest and most challenging things,” Conlon said. “But also the most enriching experience I have personally ever done. It gives me the freedom to cook whatever I want. I think what makes it different is we tend to be more adventurous. We push the boundaries of your typical dinner.”