Pittsburgh’s Dinner Lab members savor pop-up dining experiences
Dining out with friends can be quite the adventure. But have you ever considered dining among strangers in a secret location on a meal that’s available for one night only?
A company taking the concept of “pop-up restaurant” to the national level is Dinner Lab, which started with its first dinner in New Orleans in 2011 and has expanded to 31 cities, including Atlanta, Chicago, San Francisco, New York and Denver. The company’s mission is to provide unexpected dining experiences around the communal table that brings people together who otherwise wouldn’t be sharing a meal.
Dinner Lab launched in Pittsburgh almost a year ago, and membership into this underground dinner club has been on the rise ever since. Deciding to launch in Pittsburgh was a no-brainer, says Dinner Lab’s CEO, Brian Bordainick.
“Pittsburgh is so analogous to our home in New Orleans,” he says. “There is really a sense of community in Pittsburgh, and things are moving and happening. The city is going through its moment right now, and the culture is out of control.”
Membership into Dinner Lab comes in two levels. Select membership is $125 a year and gets you access to the exclusive dining calendar, a lower ticket price on dinners and invitations to Select members-only events like happy hours, parties and wine dinners. Select members also get to purchase tickets for guests and make one-week advanced booking on all dinners.
As for the other level: To make the dining experience more accessible, Dinner Lab launched a free membership in late 2015. Like the Select, access is granted to the dining calendar, but tickets are at a higher price point.
Both memberships allow you to attend events in other cities where Dinner Lab operates.
Dinners happen about once a month for 120 people (two seatings of 60 each night) and range from $50 to $80 per dinner, which typically includes five courses, open bar, tax and gratuity. The headlining chef and menus are released weeks ahead of time, but the nontraditional location is kept a secret until 24 hours before the dinner. Past locations have included the Union Project in Highland Park, the Pittsburgh Public Market in the Strip District, the Energy Innovation Center in the Hill District, and the TechShop in Larimer.
Vicki Potter and her husband, Dan, of Friendship joined Dinner Lab because they relish trying new places and thought it would be a great opportunity to have a new dining experience.
“We love the idea of trying out new cuisines, a chef’s new vision, or sampling a new concept,” Vicki Potter says. “We also love to travel, and this brings new cuisines and concepts from chefs in other cities to us.”
In additional to highlighting local chefs — like Curtis Gamble, who tested the concept of Bloomfield’s Station at the May 2015 dinner — Dinner Lab brings in chefs from other cities.
One of the traveling chefs was Justin Thompson of Nashville, who presented a Southern hospitality-themed meal this past July. The Potters attended this dinner along with their friend, Nisha Contractor of the South Side. Contractor says the communal-style dining allowed her to sit with people she never would have met otherwise, and the multiple courses allowed her to really get a sense of the chef’s style.
Besides providing an exceptional dining experience for guests, Dinner Lab helps emerging chefs hone their skills and test restaurant concepts and menu items. Chefs are given a budget and free creative rein to do their thing. Dinner Lab scouts the location and provides helping hands.
Guests then provide feedback to the chefs, which they’ll consider when opening their new restaurant or putting a new dish on the menu.
Csilla Thackray of The Vandal in Lawrenceville created a Hungarian-inspired menu for the November Dinner Lab that was influenced by her childhood and her grandmother’s kitchen. She signed up to be a part of the Dinner Lab experience in order to challenge herself.
“A tasting menu for 120 diners is no small feat,” Thackray says. “I knew it would push me to realize my capabilities and limitations.”
She also did it to create a cuisine that is not commonly coming out of professional kitchens in the United States. The experience as a whole was very positive, she says, and it made her notice that she has difficulty thoroughly communicating to others what she wants out of certain dishes.
“This experience made me step out of my comfort zone and feel more confident about expressing what I want,” Thackray says. “For that, I’m very grateful.”
With finding some time on his hands in between cooking gigs, Dennis Marron — formerly of The Commoner in Downtown’s Hotel Monaco and currently at Carota Cafe in the Strip District’s Smallman Galley — helped out at a handful of Dinner Lab events before hosting his own in December as a preview of his forthcoming oyster bar concept restaurant. With this dinner, he created a lot of interest in his new restaurant, which is set to open in late spring or summer.
This past week, Benjamin Dougherty of Pittsburgh Po’Boy used Dinner Lab as another outlet to be creative with the food he likes, which may eventually lead to a sit-down restaurant. He’s currently operating out of Pittsburgh Public Market until his food truck is ready — debuting around April — and serving up Cajun and Creole cuisine like Andouille sausage, shrimp and grilled chicken po’boys, along with gumbo and muffalettas.
His Dinner Lab menu was more refined than his Public Market offerings, consisting of a Bloody Mary salad, crawfish bisque, alligator pot pie, seared duck confit, and Bananas Foster pot de creme. Participating in Dinner Lab not only allows him to express his creativity, he says, but it brings national attention and exposure. With feedback from guests, he plans to make himself and his product better.
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