by Alexlyn Dundas
Photography by Maisie Mansfield-Greenwald
Boston’s food scene has it all: top-tier restaurants, festivals to celebrate every diet and some of the most innovative food-based startups in the industry. However, one trend gaining momentum across the country that the Boston food scene has yet to fully welcome is the “pop-up dinner series.”
Pop-up dinner series are new to the world of food, but have seen a steady rise in popularity as more Americans seek alternative ways to engage with the way they eat. Pop-up dinners combine restaurant-quality food with a private dinner party atmosphere, transforming attendees from mere consumers to intimate guests.
These dinners are multi-course affairs during which guests are encouraged to eat slowly and talk to chefs, hosts and fellow diners. Hosts have a passion for food and understand the important role that commensality, or the act of eating together, has in nurturing stronger connections to both the food on the plate and the people around the table.
Experience is key for a pop-up dinner. Hosts put a lot of time and effort into making sure guests leave the table having satisfied more than just their appetite.
“We want people to be very intentional about eating thoughtfully, and purposely try to slow the guests and pause things,” said Danielle Firle, co-owner of the Portland, Oregon-based company called Secret Supper, in an interview with Equinox in December.
Secret Supper creates dinners themed for the season. Its two most recent dinners, December’s White Fir to celebrate winter and February’s Wintertide to bid farewell to winter, featured German and Scandinavian-inspired menus, respectively.
Mystery is another effective tool that heightens the sense of excitement and helps start conversations among guests. Secret Supper’s guests, for example, are not told where they will be eating until an hour before dinner. In Denver, Silver Spork Social’s events are accessed in the same way as speakeasies in the 1920’s, with guests lead through hidden passages and other hoops to jump through before they ever reach their table.
Hosts choose whatever they believe will bring people together, be that cooking together as does Brooklyn’s Sunday Suppers, or enriching professional relationships as is done at Dinner Curated’s Washington D.C. events.
Another part of the experience is location. Great pains are taken to choose a dining space that plays an active role throughout the dinner. Jim Denevan, founder of Outstanding in the Field, sets his dinners on particular patches of blooming farmland with scenic views.
“These dinners,” he said in an interview with GQ, “are the story of thousands of years of people bringing in the harvest, gathering it at a table and breaking bread.”
Denevan’s tours make yearly stops in Boston, where local foods are embraced and celebrated.
Boston is no stranger to the “pop-up” event. Many celebrated restaurants, chefs and food businesses often collaborate via pop-up. A simple search of the words “pop-up” on food-centric websites like Eater Boston or Boston Magazine will show Bostonians their city is already familiar with the concept.
However, pop-up dinner series differ from pop-up culinary events because of the attention to community building. Where pop-up events ultimately generate publicity or showcase new products, the goal of a dinner series is to forge relationships.
“We find that food brings people to our tables initially,” said Tara Wagner, spokesperson for EatWith, an online service that connects travelers to local hosts all around the world. “There’s something serendipitous about the connections that people experience at EatWith events, such as discovering a new group of people whom you normally wouldn’t have had a chance to meet otherwise.”
Through EatWith, building a community around dining is an ability that does not have to be limited to famous chefs or restaurants.
“Anyone with a love for food and people can apply to be a host,” said Wagner.
Though the application process to be a host is thorough—an initial quality screening of potential hosts’ homes and talent for entertaining, followed by a live demo dinner—the company is encouraging hosts and travelers to develop friendships through this intimate dining experience.
“Our EatWith hosts are often the source of incredible information about their city, whether it’s recommendations on restaurants to try or fun things to do,” Wagner said.
Pop-up dinner series are beginning to appear in Boston; Alden & Harlow’s Whole Garden series is an example. They have the chance to transform the way the city eats. Lasting relationships can be made when people look up from their dinner plates and into the eyes of the stranger sitting across the table—all because of a love for food.