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If you like it you can’t go back – and if you hate it there’s no point complaining. Zoe Williams ponders the strange phenomenon of London’s pop-up restaurants
The first pop-up restaurant I went to was Flash, at the Royal Academy last year. It smelt of fresh paint and untreated wood. This was partly because of the delightful interior-design concept – walls of packing cases made of untreated wood, and much fresh paint. I like to think it signified the flighty, Holly Golightly, here today, gone tomorrow concept. But it must also have owed something to the fact that it was thrown up in an afternoon.
This must be what it’s like being the Queen – everywhere you go, they’ve just painted the skirting boards as an international herald of welcome. She lives in a world of clean, where all the canapés taste a little bit like paint.
Pah, who cares about taste? Although at Flash a lot of the food tasted really good, and furthermore, we were literally nose to tail with Fergus Henderson (I exaggerate, of course – he was on an adjacent table) and the fashion designer Giles Deacon. I haven’t eaten anywhere near people that famous since I had sushi opposite Christian Slater. My whole neck seized up in the excitement and I nearly choked.
So that’s one of the good points about the pop-up concept – the restaurant is bound to be full of celebrities, because they love places and things that are new, and what could be newer than an eatery that will be open for just 80 days? Its short existence doesn’t mean the food will be bad – food delights in its own evanescence. Indeed, apart from being delicious, that is the whole point of food. I had a ham hock and eel terrine that tasted amazing. Smelt a bit like paint, mind.
But while popping-up doesn’t preclude good food, it lets them off the hook for turning out incredibly bad food. The Double Club, which opened last November and is scheduled to close in July, is a notion so fashionable it made me feel a bit light-headed. The ‘double’ in the name refers to the fact that it is part modern-Brit, part Congolese. The decor is sudden – well, it just popped up, how much more sudden do you get? – and exciting. It feels like the foreign correspondents’ club in a war-torn urban hub. I don’t even know what I mean by that – probably ‘it was full of drunk, cool people’. And furthermore, the proceeds are going to the horribly misused victims of the civil war in the Congo, so to complain about the food seems obscene. And yet… well, the food was terrible. There is no way a permanent structure would even think about serving food like this. It would be restaurant suicide. And yes, since you ask, I do feel bad about cussing charity dining, but why donate via food if you hate food? Why not have a pop-up shop (aka ‘a car boot sale’) or, I don’t know, some pop-up art?
You see, it’s good for restaurants to think outside the box. That always happens in recessions, I hear, and some amazing innovations have come out of it. Like gastropubs – those would never have sprung into being without someone taking the box marked ‘pub food must be utterly disgusting’ and thinking outside it.
But there’s a thin line between innovating and cost-cutting, and I worry that the pop-up concept has crossed it. What’s really pricey about a restaurant? The building, the buttery leather seats that all match, the lighting that makes you look 18. I tell a lie: Heston Blumenthal explained to me once that the mortgage on a million quid was still cheaper than the annual salary of one competent waiter. But that’s another casualty of the temporary concept: the waiters don’t have to be competent, or even nice. The diner-waiter relationship is on a tightrope already. They can’t be too unctuous or we’ll wonder: ‘Why is he being so polite? It must be because I am in the wrong venue, or the wrong postcode, possibly even in the wrong town. I’ve fallen in with the out-crowd! This totally kills my appetite.’ Yet at the same time, they can’t be actively unkind or genuinely derisive, because if we have a horrid time we won’t go back. They’re permanent, remember.
Take away that element of longevity and you wholly change the dynamic, along with the profit structure. A pop-up restaurant doesn’t need to lay down foundations, it just needs spectacle. It doesn’t need loyalty, it needs anyone – arrivistes, fly-by-nights, flibbertigibbets – it doesn’t matter who, so long as they’re hungry. The very last thing it needs is reputation. Now I put it that way, it sounds like the kind of thing I might be able to do myself. I take it all back; it’s not an invitation to mediocrity, it’s a brilliant idea.
Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine Summer 2009