Make It Pop: The Innovative Menus and Venues of Utah’s Pop-Up Scene
Watercolors, oils, pastels—the latest installment from various artists hangs about you. There’s a hushed buzz as the crowd chats softly about everything and nothing, anticipation hanging thick in the air. Finally it’s time—you take your seat among a cross-section of dedicated foodies, the gastro-curious and affluent diners in search of something novel. The chef enters and announces the first course, an amuse bouche inspired by the season’s harvest. Your mind is piqued, your taste buds tingle, and your culinary adventure begins.
Welcome to the pop-up, also known as limited-edition, underground dining catering to the “experiential diner”—someone who values a transformative experience as much as an unforgettable menu. Pop-ups can be a one-time only event, or they can take place regularly over a few weeks or even years. They’re often in an atypical setting—an art gallery, a boutique, a greenhouse—that provides an intimate, unexpected venue for a limited number of guests who pay as much as $100 to $150 for their repas.
A Surging Trend
It’s a gastronomic trend that began in the 2000s in cities like Sydney and New York and has made its way into the Utah dining scene over the past few years. One of the first notable Utah pop-ups took place in 2012, produced by The Mist Project, a worldwide “guerrilla restaurant” venture helmed by Chef Gavin Baker. Baker courted local chef and culinary instructor Katie Weinner to serve as head development chef, who “collaborated on the menu and got chefs together” to pull off the two-month Salt Lake experience.
Weinner was herself transformed by the experience. She went on to found SLC POP, hosting pop-ups at a Salt Lake art gallery (which she aptly named Nata Gallery) through 2014, and now foodies can find her after-hours pop-ups at Red Moose a few Saturdays each month. Hers is a coveted menu, with people drawn not only by her word-of-mouth reputation, but also her national acclaim gained on Food Network’s Top Chef.
Weinner says the intrigue is often in the inventiveness. Pop-up chefs tend to change up the menu every time, which brings regulars back (SLC POP tends to see about 65 percent of its diners returning week to week) and invites new guests in.
She likes to focus on what’s in season or on-trend, presented in a way diners haven’t seen before. “We’ll start with an amuse bouche, go to some type of soup or salad—we did an aerated apple juniper soup this last week,” says Weinner. Her courses tend to include a riff on curry, a meat course, a palate cleanser (she just served up apples three ways: apple granita with freeze dried apple and apple caviar with cider foam), dessert (like her recent beet cereal with kaffir lime-infused milk) and a petit four (guests loved her latest red wine boozy gummy bears).
Utah groups like The Red Kitchen and Culinary Crafts, the Orem-based award-winning caterer, have also recently entered the pop-up theater. Culinary Crafts’ inaugural pop-up took over the well-appointed barn at Snuck Farms in Pleasant Grove last August.
“The chefs went out and harvested the greens for their salad from the farm and pulled flatbreads right out of the stone oven there,” says Mary Crafts-Homer, CEO, president and founder. “Our goal is to get the chefs out of the kitchen, preparing the food in front of the guests.”
Culinary Crafts is dedicated to the one-and-done model, delivering a one-time menu at a one-time location, and moving to an all-new venue the next time. She and her chefs place a special emphasis on locally sourced foods. Their recent pop-up, for example, featured torched Utah goat cheese, mesquite-grilled Rocky Mountain trout, sous vide Double R Ranch rib eye, local cheese and Amano chocolate and Utah apple crostata.
“It’s not just about the food,” she adds. “It’s the whole experience: the pairing of wines, the location, the sharing of where the cheeses come from, how gelato is made, how to properly taste chocolate.”
Unique experiences like these are enchanting more of Utah’s discriminating diners. According to Eventbrite, pop-up attendance increased nationally by more than 80 percent last year. Local demand is also on the rise, which means getting access isn’t always easy. Tickets to pop-ups are typically pre-sold, and both Weinner and Crafts-Homer say their events often sell out. The land-grab goes first to those who follow groups like The Red Kitchen and SLC POP on social media, while Culinary Crafts’ devotees can get upcoming event details on the company’s website.
However you get there, it looks like this one-of-a-kind dining experience is worth having—more than once.
Chef/Owner SLC POP