Night life: These businesses are built not to last
At the end of a dingy alley near Cosmo Street off Hollywood Boulevard there is a yawning door crowned by a buzzing neon sign. A clump of young dandies stare at the unbribable doorman beyond the rope — jagged bangs hiding pleading doe eyes. This is Paul & Andre, spring’s hot new club, impossible to get into unless you display an off-beat sense of style and aren’t the boorish type. The chosen few mount a scruffy staircase, pass through a service kitchen and emerge into a dimly lighted promised land where an arty, fashion-forward crowd dances and faux-pouts in equal measures.
The club, the creation of New York-based night-life kingpins Paul Sevigny (brother of the actress Chloë Sevigny) and Andre Saraiva, affects a relaxed speakeasy vibe. But what really sets it apart from its glitz-driven competition, like the Colony and Playhouse, is that Paul & Andre is the city’s first “pop-up” bar. That means the club, occupying the spot vacated by the shuttered club Cinespace, will close in six months, and its fleeting nature only adds to the buzz.
What started more than three years ago with LudoBites — chef Ludo Lefebvre’s now-legendary pop-up restaurant — has spread to clubland, adding a fresh dimension to the city’s increasingly ubiquitous pop-up culture. Because they are by nature temporary — opening for periods ranging from one night to several months — the city does not have official numbers, but those who closely follow the scene say pop-up restaurants, bars, clubs, boutiques and galleries are cropping up like mushrooms after a rain and that L.A. appears to be leading a movement that is spreading nationally. The trend benefits from the vacant and underutilized spaces existing in the still-recovering economy and the immediacy of social media networks like Twitter, which are used to spread the word.
With so many aboard the pop-up bandwagon, there is some dispute, even among participants, about the term, but generally, it means the temporary transformation of a business or space. A beer garden might set up in a parking lot for a weekend; a guest chef or mixologist might take over the kitchen or bar at an existing restaurant for a night or three; or a series of exclusive dinners might be served inside of a furniture showroom
Boutiques, parties and galleries regularly pop-up, but the craze is driven by food and drink.
“Pop-ups have positioned themselves as a driving force of L.A.'s social scene,” says Maggie Nemser, founder of the website BlackboardEats, which offers discounts to popular restaurants. “They appeal to a very passionate food-and-drink enthusiast that is often in a younger demographic.”
BlackboardEats began offering pop-up dinners to its subscribers Sunday when it staged an evening of beer and beefsteak cooked by chef Walter Manzke (formerly of the well-regarded restaurants Bastide and Church & State) at Biergarten in Koreatown. Some argue that such an event is the same as hosting a guest chef, a common practice for decades. But most agree that pop-ups have moved beyond that paradigm thanks to the fact that those staging them often bring their own staff, transforming the space into something uniquely their own for a limited period of time.
Hosting a pop-up is “like a limited-engagement theater performance,” says Manzke. “And it’s unpredictable, so that makes it exciting and unpretentious. We have all of these young, energetic clientele being driven by Facebook and Twitter. Now you cook a dish and somebody takes a picture of it and sends it out, and 10,000 people share what they’re eating. You can do things that haven’t been done before.”
Those who stage pop-ups also can use them to test-drive new concepts without committing to expensive leases. To sweeten the deal, pop-ups automatically do away with the pesky issue of permanence that plagues restaurants and bars. You don’t have to worry about cultivating a return customer base if you’re breezing through. And if you do well, you can open a permanent venue, which is what Sevigny and Saraiva hope to do.
Pop-ups caught fire when “hush-hush little whispers from friend to friend turned into something that gets blasted online,” says Brian Saltsburg, co-founder of Test Kitchen, L.A.'s longest-running pop-up restaurant and mixology program, which ceased operations last December after 102 days of service. “So suddenly something small and private became something much bigger.”
When BlackboardEats emailed its offer for the Manzke dinner, it sold out in three hours. When it offered a dinner featuring Neal Fraser of Grace at Test Kitchen — which featured a constantly shifting cast of the city’s most exciting chefs and mixologists and is rumored to be considering a comeback — demand was so immense that the OpenTable website crashed for 20 minutes.
Nobody has harnessed the power of the pop-up better than Lefebvre, the father of L.A.'s movement. “A lot of chefs ask us how to work our business model, and more and more chefs — big chefs — are doing pop-ups now,” he says on the phone from Santa Fe, N.M., where he is filming an episode of his soon-to-air television show “LudoBites America,” which follows the trailblazing chef as he pops-up in cities across the country. In fact, there are so many pop-ups that Lefebvre is no longer calling his restaurant, LudoBites, a “pop-up.” He’s rebranding it a “touring restaurant.”
Lefebvre’s operation is totally self-contained. When he occupies a new space he brings with him food, equipment and staff, along with the pricey trappings that accompany such things: a payroll, worker’s compensation policy, employee handbooks and an insurance policy. Most pop-ups rely on the restaurant or bar they are occupying to have those things in place.
And in a sign that pop-ups are evolving, Lefebvre wants to take LudoBites on the road, much like a band would go on tour after recording an album. “L.A. is my recording studio,” he says. He plans to host another L.A. LudoBites before heading out — hopefully in October — with 10-day stops in cities including Austin, Texas, and New York. The expanded scope is a natural extension for the chef who started by bringing his fine-dining résumé to a shuttered restaurant in the Valley, a Culver City cafe, a Third Street bakery and a tiny downtown lunch spot. These restaurants were closed in the evenings, so the arrangement provided a low-cost forum for Lefebvre and additional income for the owners in a tough economy.
Royal/T, a Culver City art gallery and cafe, hosted LudoBites two years ago and embodies the trend by regularly hosting pop-up dinners and devoting a 400-square-foot Plexiglas room to staging pop-up shops — organic South American shoes, “Tron” movie memorabilia, New York designer Lisa Perry’s Warhol-inspired dresses. “That’s what it’s all about — showing off your brand and what you can do,” said Sophia Cesaro, Royal/T’s vice president.
A lack of pretension is also key to the pop-up concept, where drinkers and diners forgo the fancy trappings of old-school establishments for a stripped down experience focused on the food and drink.
“At most restaurants, people don’t know the name of the maître anymore,” says Test Kitchen’s Saltsburg. “I don’t think L.A. cares about the front of the house anymore. They want a good experience at a fair price.”
That’s certainly the case with a new roving 70-keg beer garden called ColLAboration, which opened last Saturday in Burbank. Customers sit at communal tables, leisurely sipping $5 pints of craft beer with like-minded neighbors.
“We’re a horizontal city, as opposed to San Francisco or New York. We have bigger spaces here that lend themselves nicely to this sort of thing,” says one of the owners, Tony Yanow. “There are also gorgeous parking lots here that are beautifully planted, with nice views. And we’re particularly lucky for the weather.”
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