Chef Anthony Strong permanently closed his popular Mission District restaurant Prairie in August, sweeping out the grills, swearing off the traditional restaurant model, and saying that he was going to go camping for a while. Now the inventive chef has emerged from the woods with another wild idea, and is roaming the city, and serving a “glamping” menu from a Volkswagen van he’s kitted out with lawn chairs and a grill. It’s not a food truck, and it’s not a pop-up — he says it’s private dining, parked in your driveway.
“I have a mobile dining room on wheels,” says Strong. “I can bring my dining room to your venue of choice … and I wanted to geek out a little bit and make something that was fun for people. I figured everybody could kind of use it. So that’s Stella.”
Stella would be the name of the van, and she is a super cute Whitestar Volkswagen from 1989. Never one to turn down a construction project, Strong gutted the interior, and installed banquettes made from bleached ash and cushioned in denim, an acrylic-wrapped table, fresh carpets, and fresh paint. Out front, an awning covers four lawn chairs gathered around a Yeti cooler and Solo stove. A PK charcoal grill is small and mighty enough to pack in and out of a venue. All this can either be parked at a private residence, as in a generous driveway, or at a private events space — like an astroturf spot near Spark Social in Mission Bay.
The smoky menu may sound familiar to Prairie fans, but is served up with even more camp. It’s eight to nine dishes, spaced in four courses, starting with bites and bubbles out by the stove, such as a grilled lobster fondue dunked in fermented chile butter. Step onto the van for starters, such as soup served hot from a thermos. Mains are big charcoal-grilled proteins, such as trout drenched in nasturtium butter, whole squab rubbed down with brown butter, or a tomahawk steak with porcini and truffles. Desserts include campfire-griddled waffles made from Carolina gold rice flour and drizzled in salted caramel. The menu starts at $88 dollars per person, and add-ons of “super luxe” ingredients range up to $165 per person, plus wine pairings, and a travel fee.
It’s a very different setup from traditional catering for 50 or 100 people, and it’s also pretty different from the usual private chef gigs, going in and out of people’s homes. Strong is limiting these private bookings to only four guests at a time, and specifically trying to keep the setup “small and safe.”
“Honestly, I just love seeing the look on people’s faces when they walk up,” Strong says. “A few first reactions from friends were like, ‘Dude, I’m not paying to eat dinner on your van.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I wouldn’t either! But it’s going to be great!’ There just hasn’t been too much fun these days. Don’t get me wrong, there are some beautiful parklets out there. But I wanted something that was exciting, fun, a little bit quirky, and kind of irreverent.”
Stella the van is now accepting requests for private dining. Catch one if you can.