Not your average bear (pop-up restaurant)
After weeks of anticipation, wonder and doubt, we raced toward the car on the stormiest night of 2015 to make our 8 p.m. reservation at a little known pop-up restaurant where a chef dressed from head to paws as a bear would be cooking a multicourse, South American-inspired menu.
I stared long and hard at the email tipping me off to Cow by Bear, followed a link to Yelp reviews dating back to 2011, and grabbed the phone to start texting some insiders. Have you ever heard of this? I asked a mix of esteemed restaurateurs, chefs, publicists and friends whom I consider deeply involved in the local food scene. Their responses were almost unanimous: This is a joke, and you’re falling for it.
A few days after emailing an interview request to email@example.com, I got a response - from “Bear” - who agreed to the article, with conditions emerging the more we corresponded.
“After very careful consideration, I just need to place the secrecy of my identity above all else for numerous reasons,” Bear wrote in response to my plea to at least speak by phone. “Equality is big in bear culture - we’re all the same. It doesn’t matter who I am as long as the meal is spectacular and you’re having a great time.”
Here’s how it works: Cow by Bear dinners happen every Saturday night at various outdoor locations in Little Italy. To get a reservation at the 10-seat dinner, you send an email and Bear responds with available dates (usually about a month out). Once you’re booked, half of the $150 price is due by electronic payment. A few days before, you’ll get a menu outlining the four courses, cocktail and wine pairings. Menu themes change, but the cow remains constant: SonRise Ranch, grass fed, 45-day dry-aged ribeye, which ripens in Bear’s very own garage in a 38-degree cooler.
Rain poured down as we approached the awning-covered table and took a seat with the eight others - and no, they weren’t all hipsters. Together we laughed, looked up nervously at our host’s furry, frozen expression, and poised ourselves for what would undoubtedly be the most bizarre dining experience of our lives.
Bear works the anonymity angle hard. Besides the two assistants - server Marq Evans, and a helper in the kitchen - no one knows whether there’s a man or woman underneath the suit. There’s speculation in some Cow by Bear Yelp reviews that he/she might be a recognizable figure in the food community - perhaps even the chef of a notable restaurant, with bosses who probably wouldn’t want to be linked to cosplay dinner parties.
“I think most people know not to mess with a bear,” Bear wrote back when I asked if any bad-mannered guests ever pushed the anonymity issue. “I’ll simply maul anyone who gets too out of hand or tries to pressure me into revealing my identity... Most people are courteous to the fact that I’ve got a huge meal to cook and need to stay focused.”
The evening started off with Sea Legs - an appropriately dark and stormy cocktail made with Haitian Barbancourt Rhum (rum), along with cancha-the zesty Andean preparation of corn nuts, which were puffier and less crunchy than what you’d expect.
Hearts of palm salad with alligator pear and grapefruit, paired with 2011 Zolo from Argentina came next, followed by Bear’s take on locro - a traditional Argentinian chorizo stew - paired with 2012 Tikal from the same country. Things really heated up when a bowl of rendered cow fat with cracklings arrived at the table (with bread for dipping), along with the remaining bottle of Haitian rum. Shots, and crispy beef bits, were a precursor for the pleasure to come in the main course - thick sliced ribeye carved off the bone with a drizzle of chimichurri - that was so tender you could cut it with your fork.
Well-prepared food aside, everyone at our table agreed the mystery, meeting each other, and being able to walk away with a story to share for the rest of our lives made the experience all the more savory.
We became friends with husband-wife diners Marco Lomeli and Darcey O’Keefe of Ocean Beach. Lomeli found out about Cow by Bear when he Googled “best ribeye in San Diego.”
“It’s an entire dining experience and not just a piece of meat on a plate,” Lomeli said. “It encourages you to get out of your comfort zone and interact with new people, sharing stories with strangers as if you were at your own dining room table.”
“Although Bear is actually dressed up as a bear, and there is the mystery of the pop-up and who the other diners will be, the food does not rely on the novelty of the experience,” O’Keefe added, also saying: “with or without the other aspects of the evening, the meal stands on its own as being delicious.”
Still, shock value and humor prevail with the Cow by Bear concept. After trying my best to get the mammal-in-question on the phone, ultimately, Bear had to turn me down because neither of us had any sort of voice distortion technology. My guess is, someone’s watched Banksy’s “Exit Through the Gift Shop” one too many times.
There are going to be skeptics; would-be diners who can’t take an adult human dressed like a bear seriously.
“I can’t change who I am,” said Bear, who never broke character in all of our correspondences. “I’ve also heard people say Mickey Mouse is just a gimmick. Come spend a night with us, and see if you still feel that way.”
Amy T. Granite is a dauntless eater who has written about food in San Diego since 2006. You can follow Granite and her tasty adventures on Twitter and Instagram @saysgranite. Send your mouth-watering ideas to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.