Fine Dining at East Bay Pop-Up Restaurants
An increasing number of East Bay chefs are eschewing brick-and-mortar restaurants for “permanent pop-up” dining experiences that push culinary boundaries.
The multicourse menu at Anaviv’s Table offers fresh, local dishes, such as oysters from Hog Island Oyster Co.
Photo by Susan Adler
The most exciting dining options in the East Bay aren’t happening in Michelin-starred restaurants or typical fine-dining stalwarts. For truly transportive evenings (or a more casual yet elevated adventure), head to one of the seemingly oxymoronic “permanent pop-up” culinary events cropping up in Oakland, Richmond, Emeryville, and beyond.
While the concept varies by location and according to the chefs’ whims, permanent pop-ups tend to involve talented cooks descending on a kitchen they don’t necessarily own or lease (but have permission to use) to prepare food ranging from prix-fixe high-end fare, to down-home fried favorites, to globally inspired recipes passed down from generation to generation. The reason behind this business model is simple: Rent and labor costs in the Bay Area continue to skyrocket, making opening (and sustaining) a traditional restaurant increasingly difficult—plus, it makes sense to test out ideas before taking the plunge on a lease. And oftentimes, local businesspeople—whether they are bar owners, restaurateurs, or landlords of underutilized commercial spaces—are more than happy to rent out their kitchen or entire restaurant part-time to make a little extra cash.
Take, for example, Uptown Oakland’s Abstract Table, which transforms breakfast-sandwich spot The Gastropig into a Friday and Saturday evening exercise in innovative flavor combinations, precise plating, and seasonal themes. Without the pressure of appealing to diners throughout the week, chefs Andrew Greene and Duncan Kwitkor are able to combine their fine art and culinary backgrounds to produce true works of epicurean art. That manifests as vibrantly colored dishes—served as a dining exhibition—currently inspired by the intersection of Norwegian and Japanese cooking. And The Gastropig owner Loren Goodwin—who becamea fan of the pair when they were refining their pop-up chops at San Francisco’s Naked Kitchen—reaps the benefits of dinner business on nights the restaurant would normally be dark.
“We wanted to work for ourselves, to find a way to work together, not under the umbrella of someone else,” Greene says. “It was about starting small and trying to be humble and build something organically—the idea of getting back to basics, of being artists without all of the things that get in the way. Loren has been gracious enough to provide this space, where we feel like we’re in the studio. The kitchen turned into our studio.”
While embarking on a new venture can be daunting—especiallywhen it requires diners to embrace a unique menu with adistinct vision—the duo was up to the task.
“We didn’t have any qualms. Having that creative freedom is a hugely important aspect and a big part of the appeal, so we were buoyed by the potential,” Kwitkor says. “It takes some bravery to do this; if you have a normal restaurant, you have an owner taking a huge percentage of the risk. But I’m confident in what we’re doing.”
A Shared Experience
Over in Richmond, chef Arnon Oren capitalized on the existing commercial-kitchen space he uses for his businesses, Oren’s Kitchen and Anaviv Catering and Events, to launch Anaviv’s Table—a striking communal-dining destination anchored by a 10-person wood table. Three nights a week, the chef begins by inviting guests into the kitchen with a cocktail or glass of wine to watch him dish up appetizers before plating a three- to four-course meal paired with small-production California wines.
“We noticed anytime we invited guests into our working commercial kitchen, they got excited. So when we started thinking about the dining experiencefor Anaviv’s Table, we decided to definitely keep that as an element,” says Dee Wagner, the director of operations. “It’s such a great icebreaker before everyone sits down to dinner.”
The peek into the kitchen and the intimate dinner-party feel allow chef Oren to form a connection with each patron while also sharing his passion for organic, seasonal, and locally grown ingredients, often sourced from nearby farmers and ranchers. And though it’s been a challenge to convince folks that an industrial area near Point Richmond hides a convivial, farm-to-table dining destination, those willing to take a walk on the wild side stroll away with a one-of-a-kind experience dictated by that evening’s unique combination of ingredients, diners, and conversation.
“[The response has been] overwhelmingly positive. I think we were actually surprised by how much guests enjoy the experience,” Wagner says. “Even though the dinner starts with a group of people who often don’t know each other, by the end of the night, you would think everyone had been friends for years.”
Better Bar Bites
That’s not to say the term “permanent pop-up” necessitates multicourse menus, intricate plating, and forging friendships with fellow diners. A number of neighborhood bars—including The Lodge and Mad Oak, both in Oakland—have embraced the opportunity to add a food menu to their drink roster without the stress of maintaining a full kitchen. And some of these more casual pop-ups are your best bet for scoring highbrow cuisine in a lowbrow setting.
The Filipino pop-up Likha debuted in Emeryville’s Hometown Heroes sports bar this past summer, with chefs Bobby Punla and Jan Dela Paz using their impressive fine-dining pedigrees to elevate traditional Filipino dishes and typical bar fare. Punla and Paz create food that manages to straddle the line between gourmet and pub grub—from meriendas (snacks) such as Mary’s free-range chicken lumpia and Thai basil–dusted fried brussels sprouts, to mains that veer from pork belly rice to Eureka rock fish escabeche complemented by the spicy-sweet flavors of papaya, peppers, and a tangy sauce. Punla or Paz personally delivers each dish to the table, thanks guests for coming, and blows diners’ minds with the fact that there's food this good in a place bumping Drake as the Warriors battle on the TVs.
A Fork in the Road
Diners clearly have been craving these new eating experiences and opportunities to connect over food in a setting more intimate than a traditional restaurant. But some successful pop-ups have drawn scrutiny from the Alameda County Public Health Department.
In August, a food inspector shut down the bustling Nokni—a pop-up inside Oakland’s The Kebabery—after strolling by and noticing business outside of normal operating hours. Likewise, the Alameda County Public Health Department forced one of the East Bay’s most popular and long-running pop-ups, Chef Smelly’s, out of its space inside the Complex Oakland entertainment venue in October. (As of press time, the Chef Smelly brand is once again dishing out meals at One Story Building in San Leandro.)
Both shutterings drew public ire and negative media buzz. And though all pop-ups are technically illegal in California—regardless of the chefs’ certifications, food-handler cards, or use of a commercial kitchen—some counties have adopted their own policies regarding pop-ups, a move that may be on the horizon for Alameda.
In January, Alameda County introduced a new plan that allows pop-up eateries to continue operating—provided they “pop up” in permitted restaurants and meet a number of other requirements. Whether it’s necessary to sanction a spate of popular businesses that often adhere to strict, self-imposed standards (most pop-ups have certification, training, and permitting in line with restaurants) is up for debate. But if the recent spike in avant-garde dining experiences sprouting up in the East Bay is any indicator, the “permanent pop-up” dining trend has already taken root—and will require more than a little haphazard weeding to eradicate completely.