I’ve always avoided pop-up restaurants. There’s something about the concept, a combination of the faddishness, the transience and the lack of culpability, that used to grate. There was something so inescapably London about the whole thing – so fixed wheel and pencil tache East London if I’m honest – about the race to discover, experience and brag about a temporary installation masquerading as a grub house. They always felt like fleeting fancies for contemptuous twats who prefer to be seen than see, to tick things off a list instead of experience for the love of it, to get in somewhere you can’t. The kind of people that believe VIP still stands for very important person. Pop-up restaurants always felt like things you had to do, rather than wanted to do – like hang out in XOYO.
There was also something about the way they could just surface somewhere, serve meals to a few week’s worth of people hungry to be humping the zeitgeist, and then vanish that also annoyed me almost as much as Piers Morgan’s face. Customers and critics alike could play Whac-a-mole trying to hit each one on the head and locate those worth trying, but then they were off with a smug smirk never to be seen again. Plus I never really heard any good reports. In fact, the last one a friend tried, the Finnish (and now long since finished) Hel Yes (yes really) sounded, well, hellish. Pretentious, poor food and prickish people was all I remember hearing about it.
Anyway, for various reasons too mundane to mention I’ve since tried a few. And both of these are permanent pop-ups, switching location and date from month to month to justify the oxymoronic description.
First of all Funthyme, who despite the name take it seriously. Their Jog On Cupid event last month (designed for singles and loners and couples sick of sentiment) might have been at the wrong time in the wrong place (a Monday night on Kingsland Road) but provided decent enough food and entertainment to make it worth the trek.
To amuse la bouche, a piquant Bloody Mary shot stirred with a dinky concombre. It was short, sharp and came in a glass on which a plump prawn languidly lay. Some time later (service was relaxed) – a ham hock terrine, a chewy knuckle of mangled meats shaped like a pincer and accompanied by pickled baby carrots and a chicory, apple and parsley salad. Perfectly balanced. The veggies sharing our communal table, meanwhile, were finishing up the chicory and apple in what looked like a Waldorf salad on the run.
Another gargantuan pause, during which someone called Samuel Brookes kept us entertained (live music is a cornerstone in Funthyme’s ethos), before confit of duck with thyme and mustard scented puy lentils and charred spring onions. While the duck might have had a bit more flesh on display it had succumbed to the confit torture process with aplomb and the whole thing was almost as good as the best confit in recent memory (served at Islington’s Charles Lamb if you’re wondering) . The swampy lentils and crisp young onions were an inspired side. Finally, their own sticky toffee pudding with vanilla cream, a moreish guilty pleasure to end the evening.
Funthyme are popping up plenty of times this year – check them out here. For their next trick they’ll be serving up cooked bunny as an early Easter treat on Apr 21. They also just launched a delivery service called Funthyme Fix Up, which specialises in healthy foods for victims of weekend come downs and guilt fests.
The Pale Blue Door, meanwhile, has become a bit of an institution in the temping world. Having popped up at the same Dalston address for several years and made appearances in Buenos Aires and Glastonbury, the event returned to the old east London alleyway last month for another short run ahead of another stint in a few weeks time. And going there was the weirdest experience I’ve had since I broke free of Glasto’s Unfairground sometime around 6am on June 26th last year.
Located, as you might expect, behind a pale blue door in a Dickensian cobbled side street squashed between Kingsland Road and a railway line, it’s a jumbled mess of cramped tables, dusty knick knacks, dolls, lamps, doors, bikes and endless ephemeral weirdness. Run by artist and set designer Tony Hornecker, it’s half theatre prop room and half eccentric carpentry workshop, a halfway house between the fanciful landscape inside Syd Barrett’s head and the harsh reality of dilapidated London town. A place where Steptoe and Son meet Fagin and head off to The Box in Soho for some unspeakable good times.
Plants grow from old boots. Windows open above your head and heads pop out. The toilet’s in a cupboard and the cupboard holds toothbrushes that look more suited to vehicle underbellies than white teeth. Behind velvet curtains faceless chefs prepare food that’s in all honesty pretty mediocre – in our case a tomato and feta salad followed by rough hunks of beef with potatoes and finished off with a very British fruit crumbly tumble, and just drinkable red wine. But the Pale Blue Door is more theatre than gastronomy.
Before you’ve even taken your stool at the mad hatter’s table a man in a mad hat introduces himself. I forget our cross-dressing compere’s name, but by the time the salad emerged I’d seen him sing, dance, strap a plastic cock to his waist for a musical skit and sit on my lap for an intimate chit chat. By the main he’d slipped into something more comfortable (fishnets and fake boobs), buried some unsuspecting diners’ heads in his new-found cleavage and was straddling a portable piano for another musical number. It was kind of like the Royle Family’s Christmas dinner and legendary burlesque club night Kashpoint rolled into one incongruous sleazy package.
We had some Americans with us that night. They have a few small town Republican friends back home and they insisted they would have walked out at some point during proceedings. And really, there’s no finer compliment than that.
If your interest is piqued and your constitution is strong, The Pale Blue Door presents A Right Royal Knees Up from Apr 28th to May 1, a celebration of the royal wedding that we can only assume will be more burlesque than bunting. Website here.
So, where are the best pop up restaurants in London?
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