A year or two ago, the language around popup restaurants was charged with ZOMG! levels of excitement. They were the solution to high San Francisco rents! They gave voice to a new generation of chefs! They were restaurants for the social media age! These things are still true, though with familiarity the exclamation marks have faded away.
That first class of popup restaurants (Saison, Radio Africa, Mission Street Food) has either gone temp-to-perm or disappeared, while new popups are, erm, popping up in their place and following the same Twitter-Facebook-blog model of marketing their events. Two I visited this week — EAT Restaurant at the Corner and Vinyl Wine Bar's pasta night — are taking on a new role altogether: popup as neighborhood restaurant.
Vinyl Wine Bar is the second project of Saison's Mark Bright and Kris Esqueda. A few months back, the two entered into a symbiotic relationship with Mike and Nabiel Musleh's fledgling Cafe Divis. During the day, it operates as Cafe Divis with Blue Bottle Coffee and panini; in the evening, Vinyl takes over, sliding gauzy black curtains in front of the espresso machines and installing a bartender.
The four didn't just improve the look of the space, they turned it into a comfortable, pretense-free gathering point. The walls are painted the blue of a Jacques Cousteau documentary, a trellis of wooden wine racks traces the L of the bar, single-filament lightbulbs hang from the ceiling, and the chairs and couches could have been stolen from a dorm room lounge. Vinyl simultaneously compensates for the lack of a full kitchen and hits the indie demographic — the kind of audiences that the wine industry itches to court — with a rotating schedule of food trucks on Tuesdays (each truck's dishes paired with a Vinyl wine), the amazing Casey's Pizza on Thursdays, and pasta Sundays, cooked by Jonathan deWolf, a former Saison sous-chef.
Esqueda marked the latter occasion last week by throwing red-checkered tablecloths over the tables: instant date magnet. While the lovers loved lovingly, a party of 12 claimed the lounge area in back, with a couple of toddlers running laps around the coffee table and latecomers seated on the arms of the couch, noses deep in glasses of wine. The servers hustled between tables, not always catching up with demand — but hey, it's a popup! Meanwhile, behind one curtain, deWolf worked at a rudimentary cooking station, plating up giant bowls of three pastas, $15 apiece.
His spaghettini, coiled around dense beef meatballs in an innocuous red sauce, wasn't much better than what you'd get at Buca di Beppo, but the other two spring-in-San Francisco dishes demonstrated his training. Before biting into the plump, torqued rectangles of his agnolotti dal plin, we rapped our fork onto a fat poached egg, then swirled the liquid yolk and quivering whites around the plate, tossing the pasta in the creamy, pale-yellow sauce. The folds of pasta were still al dente, but each bite released a gush of sweet-cream ricotta, contrasting with the crisp asparagus and flecks of toasted breadcrumbs. His potato ravioli, floating in a clear vegetable-stock broth with sweet new peas and charred ramps, were even more polished: The filling was so delicately earthy I wondered whether the potatoes were grown in a bed of feathers.
Oddly, the wine pairings were off — a sweaty, ripe Central Coast Sangiovese ($8) didn't have the sharply honed acidity that would have better matched the red sauce on the spaghettini, while the tannic bite and broad fruit of a 2004 Bordeaux ($8) was as well suited to the creamy agnolotti as Jack Black is to Victorian dramas. I liked drinking all of them better on their own. A wine bar could have worse problems.
During the course of its 18-month existence, Crystal Yang and Tommy Halvorson's EAT Restaurant has become a peripatetic popup, moving from club to club. As of mid-March, it settled in on Friday nights at the Corner, owned by Philip Bellber (Cha Cha Cha, Parada 22). A staffing brouhaha killed off the Mission bistro this winter; a few months later, front-of-house manager Justin Glennon resurrected it as a host space for one-off restaurants. If you walked into the place on a Friday night without knowing that you had entered a revolutionary social-media phenomenon, you wouldn't guess. The Corner's black walls, wide windows looking out onto Mission Street, and tree-branch wallpaper all make it look like a low-key neighborhood spot.
Halvorson, EAT's chef, trained at restaurants like Gary Danko and Eccolo, works as a caterer and runs the Phoenix Supper Club, which throws quarterly blow-out dinners. EAT, Yang explained to me, is a way for him to scale back his ambitious food and serve it to the public.
"Scaled back" is not to call it dull. Baby radishes, both the peppery roots and leaves tossed in a bright mint vinaigrette, were strewn around a coil of sweet, freshly made butter and clumps of what Halvorson called parsley "soil," which had the appearance of a roe sac and the texture of putty; in short, 75 percent excellent and 25 percent bizarre. I'd give the same score to his deconstructed strawberry shortcake ($7), poached strawberries served with biscuit crumbs, a strawberry syrup, Meyer lemon curd, and a lemon-thyme meringue. The flavors: perfectly pitched. But my tablemate and I had to chisel into the meringue with our spoons, pelting each other with meringue shrapnel. Halvorson's raw plate ($14) was more classically composed, and wholly successful — a block of pink-fleshed tuna, very lightly cured, then seared on the exterior and presented with a smear of cilantro purée, a subtly pickled carrot, and a heap of shaved fennel.
Occasionally, the gawkiness of a once-a-week restaurant asserted itself. The Corner's servers were easy-tempered, but they brought out the courses in such rapid succession that we ended up with a plate pileup. For a meal costing $20 a person, that's easily forgotten; for EAT's $45 dinner, it played badly. And a lamb shoulder served on a heap of pearl barley braised in lamb stock had a rustic appeal, but it needed something else on the plate to counterbalance its musky richness — one of those weaknesses that would be pointed out the first night it was served and corrected by chef on the second.
But there was a salmon dish that was as exquisitely done, and as thought-through, as anything I've eaten all month: a pale-coral fillet poached to the texture of a burbling stream and served on a pool of yogurt flecked with mint and dill. Marinated, poached leeks curled and twisted around the salmon; one of them was rolled in the ash of torched leeks, and more of the black powder was sprinkled around the plate. Its note of bitter smoke served as a shadow to the dish, making the delicate flavors pop out in relief.
Was either meal substantially different from anything I've eaten in a permanent restaurant? Not particularly, though prices were probably a third cheaper. And while the initial buzz around popups has diminuendoed, the inclusive feel has remained, a sense of intimacy that helps make diners feel like participants, not customers. That feeling may be as impermanent as the one-offs themselves — or perhaps it's the thing that will keep them around permanently.