At a 1903 Craftsman-turned-restaurant in Madison Valley, diners file in from the cool night air. A hush settles, and dinner begins with an amuse bouche of sea urchin hiding within the empty shell of a whole satsuma peel. Soon the eight chefs who huddle around a prep table in the open kitchen dispatch a modernist gelatin cube that tastes uncannily of Chicago hot dog but looks like something from an abstract painting. They fill stainless steel bowls with salt and light them aflame to create makeshift ovens; seven courses later, servers excavate individual bundles of root vegetable and duck leg confit.
This type of 18-course gastronomic gymnastics happens most nights at Grant Achatz’s Michelin-starred Alinea in Chicago. When the famed chef came to Seattle for a two-day popup with chef Eric Rivera, tickets sold out in—literally—30 seconds.
Popups used to be a humble operation where up-and-comers could test the culinary waters with new concepts. And, sure, that’s still true. But these days, established chefs wield these fleeting dinners as an increasingly useful tool.
Rivera, who grew up in Olympia, decamped to the Windy City in 2010 to cook alongside Achatz in research and development. Nearly four years later he returned to Washington and joined Josh Henderson’s Huxley Wallace Collective restaurant group, then Linda Derschang’s Tallulah’s, and after that the Bookstore Bar and Cafe. After his tenure at Alinea, though, it was hard to tone down his food—and his restlessness. “I was tired of having to explain myself,” says Rivera. So in 2017 he created Addo so he wouldn’t have to.
Addo is the Netflix of popups. Keep scrolling the website until you find a menu to binge: Puerto Rican popup Lechoncito, Richard Burger (Rivera’s ode to Dick’s), or perhaps Silva, the story of Washington via tasting menu. This one-chef streaming platform runs out of the space that formerly housed Jason Wilson’s Crush. Rivera added a second Addo outpost in March inside Royal Drummer in Ballard.
Well-known chefs appreciate a popup’s strategic value, especially in the face of construction complications. Due to a much-delayed opening in Pike Place Market’s new wing, for example, seafood restaurant Little Fish turned up monthly inside Cicchetti, a move co-owner Bryan Jarr says keeps momentum going. Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi’s beloved Revel is likewise on hold as its building is redeveloped this year, so the Fremont restaurant is born again, temporarily, in the old Vestal space in South Lake Union.
Popups have also helped newcomers build buzz at warp speed. At Mi Kim’s roving Raised Doughnuts, her intriguing glazes and limited-run treats drew crowds from the start. Kim plans to continue the one-off appearances even after a shop opens in the Central District this spring. “I think popups are becoming a new way of dining,” says the Macrina Bakery vet.
Whatever pragmatic function popups offer chefs nowadays—testing grounds, more time, a place to be creative with their food—the appeal for diners is purely romantic: They want an experience that isn’t replicated night after night in a traditional restaurant. And, to find it, they’ll see you at the next popup.