It was 6:30 pm, dark and cold, on an unkempt street in Hackney. We stood shivering and peering around. “Where is it?” I wondered aloud.
Then, as we stood there perplexed, a man with a shopping bag scuttled up to a door on the other side of the street and slipped through. Elisabeth nodded, “it must be there . . . yes, yes, I remember that name.” Above the door a faded sign announced, in that brassy lettering so beloved by English pubs, “Towner & Horton.”
We crossed the street and rang the bell. Rebecca giggled and whispered, “it’s like being part of some secret society.” We waited, still shivering in the bitter air. The windows were obscured by a sheet of paper so we couldn’t see inside. Even so, it looked a promising, suitably cryptic location for a pop-up.
* * *
The pop-up restaurant is a recent foodie phenomenon. With roots in various traditions from across the world, it is only a few years old as an established trend in Britain. The concept is an exciting departure from the typical dining out experience: They are small, elusive, and often fleeting. And they barely announce their existence, let alone advertise through traditional media. In order to book dinner at one of these oracular places you have to keep eyes open and ears pricked. Sometimes you can catch one flitting across a blog before vanishing. Otherwise it’s a matter of getting your name on the right email list, or good old-fashioned word of mouth.
I’d been curious about pop-ups ever since hearing about them a year or so ago, but since moving to London I’d been too absorbed by the overwhelming profusion of normal restaurants to search beneath the surface. So when one of my foodie friends suggested a trip to this Hackney pop-up, I jumped at the opportunity.
* * *
The door opened and a girl sporting a jaunty fedora swung her head around the corner. “Welcome,” she beamed and ushered us through.
Inside, the Poacher’s Pocket was strange and magical. The room was candlelit and a handful of tables jostled for space. For seats there were a mismatched collection ranging from armchairs to cloth-covered hay bales. More hay was strewn across a floor of Astroturf and the walls were hung with curious, mythic paintings—dancing minotaur-like creatures wearing top hats and smoking pipes. In the far corner there was a makeshift bar and behind this the girl who’d let us in was nonchalantly concocting drinks. Mellow tunes emanated from speakers and taken all round the scene was cozy and cheerful.
Except for one thing: after taking off our jackets and settling around the table, we realized that the room wasn’t very warm, in fact it was approaching the arctic. We ordered hot cider in a bid to encourage circulation and wrapped numb fingered around the steaming mugs. These again were mismatched, some of them chipped. For the time being however, we had the menu to distract us from bodily discomfort. It was short, just two choices of starters, mains, and desserts, and after brief discussion we decided to share the starters, a three game terrine with spiced pear chutney and a parsnip and mushroom Wellington with a spinach sauce. For the main course, we all leapt for the venison and port stew.
Having established what to eat, we nursed our ciders, chatting and waiting for someone to take our order. There didn’t seem to be much activity in the kitchen, which worried me since the growling of my stomach was growing ferocious, but this was a pop-up, I told myself. You couldn’t expect the usual prompt, commercial service. Eventually a cheery guy sauntered over to our table and started chatting to us. The chef would be here soon, he promised, and in the meantime, he’d take our order. And did we want more drinks while we waited?
Panicking at the revelation that chef wasn’t even in the kitchen, I decided alcohol was to only way to keep warm and ordered a “hedgerow sling,” a cocktail featuring slow gin and blackberries, and then concentrated on wriggling my toes back to life.
The room slowly filled with people as we waited, and waited . . . and waited. After an hour or so a couple were seated at our table and after nodding a greeting to us began discussing the menu. “No,” said the man firmly to the woman. “I want the venison all to myself. I don’t love you that much.” We giggled. What is it with men and sharing food, I wondered for the hundredth time. Now and then our waiter came over, solicitously inquiring into our well-being, assuring us that food was on its way. He did is best to keep us amused, launching into curious stories about hay bales and misbehaving friends, liberally peppering his narrative with profanities and shaking his head in disbelief at the general state of affairs.
Eventually the food arrived. It was good, fairly interesting, but nothing to rhapsodize over. I’d been eagerly awaiting the venison stew, especially after the waiter had mentioned that it contained chocolate. When it finally arrived it was rich, dark and warming, but a bit too salty. I could barely tell it was venison.
The couple at our table finished and left, and in their place we were joined by two men. The hostess came over and whispered conspiratorially: “I hope you don’t mind,” she smiled and raised an impish eyebrow, “I’ve put some boys at your table. Is this okay? Sure?”
As we finished our meal, I wondered about the appeal of pop-up restaurants. This was my first experience and I hesitate to make sweeping conclusions. There will have to be further research. However, looking around the room at the animated faces, at people squeezed together, balancing on hay bales, at our swearing waiter making the rounds and the fedora crowned hostess pouring drinks, I felt I grasped part of the pull. Pop-ups aren’t really about the food. Or at least not primarily. Critics say they appeal because they’re trendy and cultivate a sense of the secretive and exclusive. This wasn’t my experience at all. There was no pretension or self-consciousness, and the atmosphere was down-to-earth, relaxed, and welcoming. In a sense pop-ups are part of a larger rejection of the generic modern food experience. Whereas the trend towards local, seasonal products is a rejection of commodified food itself, pop-ups seek an alternative to the homogenized dining experience, characterized by formality, false smiles and endless choice. Instead it is about intimacy and originality. The Poacher’s Pocket delivered abundantly on these two features. And I’m sure when this delightful personality is tempered with adequate heating and a slightly more organized kitchen, it could be a supremely rewarding experience.