My favorite food truck in Austin was closed last Sunday.
This particular truck is a neighborhood mainstay. (DM me if you are wildly curious about my taste in trucks. I’ll reply in the form of a koan, like a fortune cookie. May we all selfishly hoard the best things in life for as long as we can keep them secret.) It’s open every day; it’s been there for years. It is usually up and running, rain or shine, weather be damned. But last Sunday it was closed.
Look, it’s a truck. It was purposely designed to drive off into the sunset. But this one is supposed to be a food truck only in name. It was present and closed, crucially, as opposed to absent and lost to time. (Although the window was boarded up, and the grain of the wood was ominous.) It could disappear, but it doesn’t. It’s been stationary for at least five years.
Did someone die? Was someone sick? It might’ve just been a peculiar forecast situation, but I just don’t really know. And the not knowing hurt.
Apparently, I metabolize (get it?) disappearing restaurants differently than people who know insider things about roving food options. If the limited-edition dishes at a truck or a pop-up are insanely good, I figure the foldable version was always intended to serve as a low-overhead test kitchen. If there are regularly lines snaking around the block, I just assume the plan is to size up locally, secure a larger space, and graduate gracefully into sustainability and permanence. Good food is good! I like good things to stay.
But no! This is only a thing sometimes! It’s true that a number of temporary dining operations start out as low-risk test runs to prove or disprove long-term viability, but now a great many more are specifically designed to flame out. There are city-block queues of eaters out there who live for limited time offers, for trick candle food that’s here one day and gone the next. They’re tickled by the vanishing acts that fill my stomach with so much dread.
The entire point of pop-ups is to expire. That limit then feeds into a ticking time-bomb of popularity that is as temporary as a wet nap at a hipster barbecue. To get to the bottom of this evaporating attraction, GQ sent Ryan Bradley to eat his way across Los Angeles to help us all digest why pop-ups and ephemeral dining experiences have become the fastest-moving craze in food:
As attention spans shortened and experiences became the new status symbols, disappearing restaurants gained more cultural capital than their stodgily static alternatives.
This shift has created entire multimillion- and even billion-dollar real estate interests (malls, mostly) with spaces devoted to pop-up restaurants at New York’s South Street Seaport, Platform in Culver City, and Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, among others. A company based in San Francisco, called Cubert, manufactures purpose-built pop-up stalls. High turnover is now a virtue. Which means the latest food trend isn’t an ingredient or a cuisine; it’s a length of time. The most successful pop-up operations are those that can burn brightly, then quietly (and quickly) disappear to make room for something new.
Chefs have adapted to the churn. Time was, an accomplished chef would rarely up and leave a restaurant for something else. Now it happens all the time. Michelin-starred chef Dan Barber decamped from his idyllic Blue Hill at Stone Barns in the Hudson Valley for an international jaunt making luxury meals out of food waste. Chad Robertson, of San Francisco’s cultishly loved bakery Tartine, has done so many collaborations that his sourdough starter is everywhere from New York to Stockholm, as iconic as a gurgling blob of yeast can be. René Redzepi has taken Noma (and its dedicated fans) on the road from Copenhagen to Sydney, Tokyo, and Tulum. At Lalito in New York, Gerardo Gonzalez hosts regular pop-ups that often turn into dance parties you see on Instagram the next day and wish you’d been at. I recently ate ramen from Oakland’s Ramen Shop without having to leave Los Angeles, which was honestly very convenient. A few years ago, Google hired a whole crew of chefs to run a “world” café pop-up for the tenth anniversary of Google Translate. And last summer, Jessica Koslow, of L.A.’s now iconic breakfast-and-lunch spot Sqirl, started cooking out of the Food Lab, that space in Manhattan’s South Street Seaport built specifically for pop-up restaurants. And eaters, well, we lined up around the block, flew halfway around the world, and paid premium prices just for a chance to say we were there.