Cafe Society

Dinner Lab, a pop-up restaurant concept, expands to Denver

Pop-up restaurants aren't new to Denver; they hit their peak of popularity in the dark days of the Great Recession, when one-night private-supper clubs in unusual locations were a feasible way for out-of-work chefs to bring in a few dollars while providing high-end cuisine to cash-strapped food lovers. While cash can still be hard to come by, over the past couple of years new restaurant openings have proceeded at a breathtaking pace. Cooks of all levels of skill and accomplishment barely have time to sharpen their knives, much less pull off invite-only dinners unlikely to build loyal customers or lead to higher-paying jobs. But New Orleans-based Dinner Lab thinks it has found a way to profit from the pop-up trend while also offering more benefits to up-and-coming cooks and chefs.

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Started two years ago by CEO Brian Bordainick, the company offers an annual membership that gives members access to regularly scheduled dinner events, sometimes as many as three a week, depending on the market. And the company is now selling memberships in Denver, with its kick-off dinner event scheduled for September 26. For an annual membership fee of $125, members get access to regularly scheduled dinners for $65 per person per event. Members can purchase two tickets for an event and the cost includes tax and tip, so no additional money is exchanged at the dinners.

While the initial membership fee seems a little steep, Ken Macias, a manager of new market development for Dinner Lab, explains that the cost is essentially defrayed over the number of events a member attends in a year. Dinners include a half-hour cocktail reception with unlimited cocktails, beers or glasses of wine followed by a multi-course dinner paired with two to three additional drinks.

Here's how Macias outlines the four main elements of each dinner: the creative energy provided by an undiscovered chef; the ability for members to provide immediate feedback for each course and the overall experience; the unique locations and entertainment provided for events; and the social aspect that gives guests a chance to make new connections.

Dinner Lab gets its talent pool from each of its markets; about 50 percent of the chefs participating are local sous chefs and line cooks from area restaurants who are given the chance to create their own menus and tell their own stories through food. The other 50 percent are touring chefs who have received high scores from club members and who want to take their menus to new locations, as well as full-time chefs that Dinner Lab has hired based on their performance at previous dinners. Macias points out that while the meals don't feature celebrity chefs, many do come from well-known restaurants, including New York City's 11 Madison Park.

Keep reading more about pop-up restaurants from Dinner Lab...

During the dinners, club members are given comment cards after each course so they can score the presentation and execution of each dish. They also receive an email questionnaire the following day to rate aspects of the overall experience. Macias says feedback is given to the chefs so that they can hone their dishes and improve as professionals while the company uses the evaluations to give diners the experience they want. Top-performing chefs are given the opportunity to compete in a ten-chef, ten-city round robin; the top two will ultimately get the chance to pitch a restaurant concept to potential investors lined up by Dinner Lab. The data collected also allows the company to follow food trends, like noticing that cauliflower is the new Brussels sprouts or that Southern food doesn't rate highly in Northern markets, adds Macias.

Tickets for each pop-up dinner go on sale three weeks before the event, although locations are not announced until the day before. Macias says some of the most successful dinners have been at places like the Gibson guitar factory in Nashville (one of the company's top markets) and also at aerospace museums, churches and empty warehouses. Events often include entertainment -- everything from subway performers in New York to graffiti artists who decorated corporate office walls in New Orleans to the chefs themselves, who get to mingle with guests and describe their food and culinary vision.

The social aspect is key. "It's like a crowd-sourced restaurant," Macias says, since diners have the option to cast their opinions to help shape future events, and since guests are seated in groups of twelve to give strangers a chance to meet and mingle. He says he's seen guests who arrived separately at one event come to the next event together. The demographic, he adds, isn't necessarily just the young and hip, but tends to be true food lovers with a preference for technology, since much of the membership activity and company information -- including ticket purchasing, blogs, recipes and announcements -- happen online.

Membership for each city is limited because the company doesn't want members to have trouble making reservations, Macias says; Dinner Lab will start out scheduling about three dinners a month to see how Denver diners take to the club. He admits that certain cities, like Miami, have been slower to catch on, but that the biggest markets -- New Orleans, Austin, Nashville and New York -- regularly sell out up to three dinners a week.

It's too soon to say if Denverites will take to the concept, and for introverts, the idea of a blind date with eleven other people might seem a little overwhelming. But for the socially outgoing, the daters looking for connections and the corporate networkers, it could be a great way to make new friends and business contacts while sharing good food.

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Mark Antonation is the former Westword Food & Drink Editor. In 2018, he was named Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association; he's now with the Colorado Restaurant Foundation.
Contact: Mark Antonation