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Welcome to the Elegant New Era of Pop-Up Dining in the Bay Area

“The chaos of the pop-up is wearing off,” says one operator. In a post-pandemic world, diners crave more composed experiences.

Zaira Asis, Casa Aya

There’s no shortage of interesting, Instagrammable pop-ups in the Bay Area, which means the scenario should be familiar: roll up to a storefront, grab a salted egg yolk cookie or ube pan de sal, eat standing up or seated on whatever’s available, and move on. Lately, however, local pop-up operators have been gravitating toward something new, a different format: seated, ticketed meals with a higher price tag, often at unexpected locations.

Think: sampling ceviche at a vintage furniture and record store in Oakland, or enjoying a three-course Brazilian meal at a shoe boutique in the Haight. In the past few months, Bay Area diners have had both those opportunities. A four-course dinner by Sfizio, a handmade pasta pop-up, has been reappearing at the Oakland by-appointment space CouchDate since July. Outside of these events, Sfizio can be found at Oakland bars, selling out of porchetta sandwiches. Bolita Masa, a masa and maiz project by Emmanuel (Manny) Galvan, has been popping up around the Bay Area since the pandemic, most frequently at Oakland’s Taco Oscar. But a few weeks ago, Galvan took a leap and held a ticketed, five-course dinner at the new Wave Collective in the Haight, priced at $75 a person ($125 with wine pairings). In the same neighborhood, the Sabbah Dealer, a shop selling leather shoes, recently hosted a Brazilian lunch feast by San Francisco-based pop-up Casa Aya.

With diners’ renewed excitement for social experiences and an overall sense of having returned to normalcy, the new direction feels very much of-the-moment. “During the pandemic, people were very patient with small businesses, but now they’re tired of long lines for a pop-up, or showing up and finding out things are sold out,” Galvan says. “The chaos of the pop-up is wearing off, and I’ve experienced this first-hand. People are drawn to something more composed and curated.” While hosting at Wave Collective, an art gallery and community space, had its challenges — there’s no formal kitchen, for example — Galvan says he enjoyed interacting with the 22 guests and loved the opportunity to share a more detailed explanation of his cooking and mission.

This is also the case for Michelle Nazzal, the mastermind behind vegan Palestinian pop-up Mishmish Souq, who has been serving plates of cashew labneh and crispy kiftah at Vinca Minor winery in Berkeley and Birba wine bar in San Francisco. Her latest stint, however, was a departure: a multi-course seated dinner in collaboration with another Bay Area pop-up, My Friend Fernando, at the new Institute of Contemporary Art. Most tickets to the 20-seat, wine-paired dinner, Nazzal says, sold within 24 hours, even at $125 a head. “These dinners offer more of an intimate experience and you can really have powerful conversations with people,” she says.

Being able to get creative and intricate with prep and plating is an understandable craving after becoming experienced with the fast-casual format, Nazzal says. A few months ago, she and some friends were dreaming up a decadent summer solstice dinner and made their dream come true at Pallas, a new gallery in the culinary no man’s land of Cathedral Hill. The experience, she says, “was very well-received” and opened up the door for more of the same.

Perhaps elaborate, planned-out meals are a natural next step in the evolution of local pandemic-born pop-ups and their customers, both financially and socially. “Having a ticketed event and having it all paid in advance is removing a little bit of uncertainty,” Galvan says. “And people are so happy to gather again.” What’s been helping things is the timely emergence of art-driven, good-looking spaces that are more than willing to diversify their function and audience by hosting such dinners. Wave Collective has become particularly popular with local food entrepreneurs; led by artists Jenna Melnyk and Jamila Keba, it occupies a Haight storefront owned by the nonprofit District Commons, which means the two can allow emerging chefs to host events at the space free of charge.

So far, the collective — an intimate, art-filled room that also welcomes open mic nights and workshops — has also hosted a Japanese-Californian dinner by Mariko Carandang, and a night with Domain Chato Turbo, a new natural wine and snacks endeavor, on top of the aforementioned Bolita feast. Next is Casa Aya, then Just Some Folks, and more. “It’s a nice way to meet new people, and being in an art gallery, it’s such a special setting,” Keba says of the appeal of the increasingly popular pop-up format. “It’s kind of going for a really nice meal, but it feels exciting and unique.”

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