Pop-ups are the new fine dining for Millennials


On Sept. 14, 2,000 white-clad San Diego diners paid nearly $50 apiece for the privilege to show up in a secret location with their own tables, linens, dishware and picnic meals to be part of Le Diner en Blanc.

The annual, Instagram-friendly pop-up dinner, which has a 10,000-person waiting list, is San Diego’s hottest dining ticket with the Millennial crowd. While many restaurant industry analysts say the era of white-tablecloth fine dining restaurants is over, chefs and hosts in the pop-up trade say it isn’t going away, it’s just morphing into something new.

Amy Ulkutekin, host of the sixth annual Le Diner en Blanc San Diego, said younger diners are looking for more than just good food when they eat out. They want unique, exclusive and social dining experiences.

“It’s experiential,” Ulkutekin said. “We’re seeing more and more people, especially Millennials, who want to spend their dollars on experiences rather than stuff or items. This is just a fantastic event in that there’s the element of surprise, you can dine in a venue you wouldn’t be able to otherwise and they can see and be seen.”

Le Diner en Blanc, a Montreal-born event that’s produced in 70 cities on five continents each year, is a unique pop-up dinner in that the only thing provided to guests is a venue and an exclusive guest list. Ulkutekin said diners relish spending months planning their menu, outfit and table decor (the best-dressed diners and tables win awards).

“This allows people to bring their own creativity to the event,” she said. “It becomes a community event where everyone’s sharing amongst themselves.”

Imperial Beach chef Steve Brown has built his entire culinary business around pop-ups. His Cosecha San Diego brand (Cosecha means “harvest” in Spanish) hosts high-end multicourse pop-up dinners virtually every week, from San Diego to San Francisco.

The classically trained chef said old-fashioned brick-and-mortar fine-dining restaurants are dying out, so pop-ups fill that void, especially for middle-income diners who are looking for a unique culinary experience.

“Real fine dining or multicourse dinners don’t exist in San Diego,” Brown said. “This is a way to lower the risk. It’s a way of introducing San Diego to real progressive fine dining. The fine dining atmosphere isn’t about the French tablecloths, it’s about the style of the meal.”

Brown said, however, that San Diego’s pop-up scene is well behind that in L.A. and San Francisco. A meal he charges $160 for in San Diego is hard work to market, but the same concept in San Francisco priced at $300 can sell out in a day.

Here’s a look at several unique pop-ups coming up around San Diego:

Le Diner en Blanc: Thursday, Sept. 14 . The sixth annual Le Diner en Blanc was held at Liberty Station, which, prior to the event, was a secret location available only to members who register online and as space is available. This year’s event was sold out.

Cosecha SD: Every other Sunday beginning Sept. 24. Chef Steve Brown’s twice-monthly gourmet pop-ups are presented at his new Temp° by Cosecha restaurant. Upcoming dinners are nine-course A5 Satsuma Wagyu steer dinners with eight wine pairings on Sept. 24 and Oct. 22, $160. A 16-course tasting menu with eight wine pairings on Oct. 8 is $180.

Exclusive Cannabis Dinner: 6 p.m. Sept. 23. SD Canna Events hosts this “bring your own bud” dinner, a four-course meal with dishes inspired and accented with THC-infused cooking oils. To comply with regulations regarding marijuana consumption, the location will be kept secret until booking. $95-$135.

SoundBite Dinner: 6:30 p.m. Oct. 8. Chefs Nick Brune (Eco Catereres), Hanis Cavins (Carnitas’ Snack Shack) and Brad Wise (Trust Restaurant) will prepare six courses al fresco to live music by Christopher Dale. $65. Lot 8, 1201 Hotel Circle South, Mission Valley.

Cow by Bear: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. With its regularly scheduled dinners, Cow by Bear is more of a supper club, but its location is secret and so is its chef, who greets his (or her?) 14 guests each night dressed in a furry bear costume. The five-course dinner’s focus is 50-day dry-aged ribeye beef. $175 for dinner or $100 for Sunday brunch.


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