Unexpected cuisine: Pop-up dinners abound in Central PA

Photographer: Erin Dorney

I grew up as a picky eater. I mean, really picky.

Throughout college, I survived mainly on boil-in-a-bag white rice and chicken fingers (embarrassing, I know). I’m more adventurous with food these days, but it still took me a bit (okay, so maybe three years) to latch onto the idea of the pop-up dinner. My hesitation mostly stemmed from the idea of a prix fixe meal – what if I just didn’t like what they were serving?

The essence of a pop-up dinner is a temporary, communal meal served in a place that doesn’t normally host dinners. They sometimes focus on a certain theme or concept and are held in nontraditional locations like art galleries, co-ops, co-working spaces, teaching kitchens, bars, grocery stores, movie theaters or even outside. Pop-up dinners have been hosted in these very venues throughout Lancaster and York over the past three years. The trend, which began in larger cities and has blossomed along with the presence of social media (how most pop-up dinners are promoted), is here to stay.

After attending two pop-up dinners in the past two months, I can happily report I will attend any others I become aware of – which is more difficult than you might think. Because pop-up dinners are intimate, one-time events – typically designed to accommodate only 12-30 people, depending on the venue – space is at a premium. Often, the events are accessible only through word of mouth, personal invitations, Twitter or Facebook. In some cases, the location of the pop-up dinner isn’t even revealed until hours before the event. In other cases, the event is well promoted, but RSVPs are required (and they go fast).

Pop-Up Dinners | FLY

The Scarlet Runner’s Sunday Suppers are a series of monthly pop-up dinners that have been happening for the past two years at different venues in Central PA. Chef and owner Hilary Mace and sous chef Benjamin Morton aim to host relaxed, family-style dinners “featuring the bounty of Lancaster County served in an environment that brings people together.”

At the Sunday Supper in May (held at The Candy Factory’s Warehouse D in Lancaster), the meal was impeccable – small bites of smoked Yukon gold potatoes with garlic aioli (aka the fanciest french fries I’ve ever tasted); a salad of young celery leaves, endive, escarole and snow pea slaw; and an Instagram-worthy main course of fiddleheads, edible flowers, organic chicken done two ways (confit thigh and poached breast) and homemade mushroom ravioli with tarragon pesto. Dessert was Morton’s creation – a decadent carrot cake nestled in a small mason jar.

Pop-up dinners like this give chefs a chance to test their boundaries. Diners come expecting to try something different and are rarely disappointed. For the event, Warehouse D’s co-working tables were repurposed into five clusters of dining tables.

“It’s a platform for us to reach diners – people who aren’t familiar with who we are and what kind of food we do,” says Mace. “For the most part, people have to hold an event or be going to an event in order to taste our food. Holding the pop-up dinners gives us a platform to showcase the food we enjoy cooking to a new and larger audience. It is also a chance for us to be creative and try new things.”

Because The Scarlet Runner focuses on fresh, local ingredients, the menus for its Sunday Suppers are typically not posted before the event.

Pop-Up Dinners | FLY

“We create dinners based on what’s coming from local farmers and foragers that week,” says Mace. “I hope diners leave our events glad that they tried something new. I have had several people tell me that if they had seen the menu written out, they wouldn’t have been inclined to order it. However, after eating it, they loved it and were glad to have tried something out of the ordinary.”

Lancaster’s farm-to-fork cafe Commonwealth on Queen has been holding a monthly pop-up dinner since it opened on the corner of North Queen and East Walnut streets in 2013. The cafe has partnered with a number of chefs and restaurants, including Souvlaki Boys, Nick Furrow, Urban Olive, Upohar and Catering by Christina.

“We’ve done Puerto Rican buffets, vegan Iranian family style dinners, Italian, Middle Eastern mezze, Valentine’s Day four-course meals. The possibilities are truly endless,” says owner Rachael Reinmiller.

Originally, Commonwealth held pop-up dinners in order to collaborate with other chefs and caterers in the area.

“Then, it became a way for me to stay in touch with my ‘fine dining’ culinary training, which was not something I could showcase every day at the cafe,” says Reinmiller. “Then we experimented with cuisines, menus, themes and recipes and created unique dining experiences with each dinner. It was always new and quite a thrill.”

The Scarlet Runner and Commonwealth on Queen aren’t the only players in South Central PA’s impromptu dining game. Some of the first Lancaster pop-up dinners were held back in 2012 at Lemon Street Market, hosted by Essen chef Betsey Gerstein Sterenfeld (including one with the theme of “utensil-free eating”). Since then, pop-up dinners have been hosted at Sunshine Art + Design, Tellus360, Thistle Finch Distillery, Zoetropolis Art House and the Fulton Street Arts Cooperative (such as the inaugural Shift Meal Lancaster, pictured below), among other venues.

Pop-Up Dinners | FLY

The now-defunct Roaring Brook Market held at least three pop-up dinners, including a gourmet meal featuring wild edible ingredients hand-picked by Lancaster’s Forager’s Co-op, a lemon-themed dinner party and African cuisine by chef Nana Moore – a native of Ghana turned Lancaster local.

Across the river in York County – in the annex of York Central Market –
the shared commercial kitchen incubator YorKitchen hosts a number of pop-up dining events. One series serves as a way to promote restaurants about to open – a teaser dinner, so to speak, to drum up excitement. In another series called 21 South, chef Howard Cantor hosts a chef’s table dinner, serving a five-star gourmet meal using only foods available at the market.

“The quality of the food is important,” says YorKitchen’s Aeman Bashir. “However, it is the experience that really makes it stand out from a normal restaurant experience. They are set up dinner-party-style around the chef’s table directly in the kitchen.”

In the Passport to Flavors series, pop-up restaurants are held at YorKitchen as a platform for first-generation food business owners who want to test the market.

“Those potential entrepreneurs that participate are able to develop relationships with potential customers and get firsthand feedback and experience,” says Bashir. “Diners get to have an exclusive experience and try foods that they may not have tried before.”

The novelty of transforming a space for a single night, the anticipation of what might be served, the excitement of who you might meet there – these are the most appealing aspects of the pop-up dinner.

“I feel pop-up dinners will begin to shift people’s expectations of dining out,” says Reinmiller. “They won’t go and get the same thing each time. With a new menu and a new location, they are forced out of comfort zones and to be open and excited about the unknown. Trusting the skill and imagination of the chef, the diners would have to have different expectations and be open to new experiences.”


Have you attended a local pop-up dinner? Tell us your experience in the comments below.


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Posted in Dining Scene, Eat – Lancaster, Eat – York, Headlines

Erin Dorney is the editor and co-founder of The Triangle, a literary group based in Lancaster, PA. Erin has an MA in English (creative writing) from West Chester University and an MS in Library and Information Science from Syracuse University. She has been published in various literary journals including The Found Poetry Review, Rufous City Review, The Pinch Literary Journal, and Birdfeast Magazine.

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