Exclusive and sometimes quirky, pop-up restaurants offer a festive alternative to the traditional, reservations-needed dining experience we’re accustomed to when we got out for a gourmet meal. These underground experiences can be trick to plan for on vacation, considering the location is often undisclosed until right before the event, and there’s only one seating. But for friendly foodies, it’s absolutely worth pursuing — it’s a great way to interact with locals, taste ingredients sourced from the area, and be a part of the fun experiments that up-and-coming chefs are dreaming up. Here’s how you can secure your place at the table:
Chose the right destination.
Pop-up restaurants — also known as supper clubs and underground restaurants — took some cities by storm and left others untouched when they burst on the scene in 2009 and 2010. Although the trend continues in some areas like Chicago, New York, and London, it’s waning in others. If you’re traveling to destination that’s big for foodies, you’ll have a much better chance of finding a pop dinner than you will, say, in Topeka, Kansas.
Talk to people.
To track down those hard-to-find dates and locations, start by looking online — and if that doesn’t turn up a few options, contact local tourism experts, the concierge at the hotel you plan to stay at, or friends in the area. Since the restaurants typically rely on word-of-mouth advertising to promote their events, you may have better luck talking to people who live there.
That personal recommendation could come in handy another way: You may need a referral to attend some dinners. Since meals can take place in private residences, some pop-up restaurants only invite people the organizers know personally, people who have attended before, or people who have a referral from past attendees.
Get the timing right
It takes a whole lot of planning and a little bit of luck to attend an underground dining experience on vacation. Many pop-up restaurants require you to join their mailing list for a chance to dine with them, and then you’ll have to wait for them to announce their next event, which may or may not coincide with your stay. On the off chance that you get lucky and it does, you also won’t have much time to waste — you’ll have to RSVP and pay immediately (most dinners are $40-$50). Some events sell out in 10 minutes or less.
Just because a city doesn’t have pop-up restaurants, or the dates don’t work out, doesn’t mean you have to give up on the idea of having a unique dining experience on your next vacation. Several online websites connect travelers with locals and chefs who either organize dinner parties or who will invite you into their home for a meal. Some, like Feastly, focus on domestic foodie destinations like San Francisco, New York, and Washington D.C. Others have more international options — check out Bookalokal and Plate Culture.
Or catch the next big trend: chef collaboration dinners where two or more chefs work together to create a special meal. You may still have a problem with timing, but at least these events are openly advertised, with no referrals or secret mailing lists. Peruse local papers and food blogs, check the websites of chefs and venues you know about, or contact the CVB for ideas. Once you see the event listing, all you need to do to score a seat is click, no extraordinary sleuthing required.