Sep 15, 2023 - Food and Drink

Richmond is having a restaurant pop-up revival

Animated illustration of three chef hats popping up out of nowhere, one after another.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

The hottest restaurant in Richmond right now isn't actually a restaurant, it's more of a concept – and unless you're looking in the right place, you'll probably never know about it.

  • We're talking about pop-ups, that early 2010s dining trend that seems to be having a big resurgence right now.

Driving the news: A restaurant pop-up is a temporary restaurant, a modern take on early 20th-century supper clubs, and they are suddenly exploding in popularity.

  • Nationwide, new pop-ups grew by 105% from April 2022 to March 2023 compared to the same period the previous year, more than double the growth of any other restaurant category, according to a Yelp report.

In Richmond, there are about two dozen unique concepts all over town.

The concept, location and frequency vary wildly, but most have a few things in common. They're informal and intimate pre-set dinners; the details are usually announced exclusively on Instagram; and most sell out almost immediately.

Why it matters: Pop-ups are a dining event and vibe and they're bringing some much-needed fun and energy back to Richmond's dining scene, which took a beating during the pandemic.

  • And that's part of the point.

"Everything was so grave coming out of the pandemic. We watched places close, we watched friends lose their income," Brandon Day, one-fourth of the Shift Meal pop-up, tells Axios.

  • Pop-ups became a bright spot as the restaurant industry started to recover from the pandemic.

Unlike the restaurant pop-ups 10 years ago, which were often restaurants building a customer base while searching for a brick-and-mortar location, the post-pandemic crop started largely as a creative, low-stakes way for industry folks to have some fun.

  • Some, like Smashed RVA and Sprezza, went the full-scale restaurant route, but many are just a creative outlet for food lovers.
  • And having fun, plus collaborating and supporting other pop-ups, have become a big part of the current pop-up scene, Day says.

Daniel Harthausen and his Japanese and Korean pop-up Young Mother deserve much of the credit for the Richmond pop-up energy; it changed the game in Richmond and helped fuel the current surge, Day says.

  • Harthausen put Richmond pop-ups on the national stage when the concept he launched as a bar manager in 2021 earned him a spot — and ultimately the $300,000 first-place prize — on last year's HBO Max's reality cooking show "The Big Brunch."

If Young Mother was the kick-off to Richmond's pop-up resurgence, Shift Meal is the proud culmination.

  • Shift Meal is a relative newcomer on the pop-up scene, hosting its first dinner in May; its fourth, announced this week and scheduled for Monday night, sold out in a day.
The Shift Meal crew: Longtime friends Stephanie Stanton, Brandon Day, Donovan Herman and Dan McInerney. Image: Courtesy of Shift Meal

Shift Meal, named for the pre-shift meal for restaurant workers, is all about fun. The theme for its Monday dinner at Zorch is "Back to School" — a three-course menu riffing on school day lunches (think a culinary take on ants on a log and zebra cakes).

  • There will be themed drinks (adult Yoo-hoos), a best-dressed contest, and a live performance, which might be the four-friend Shift Meal team playing "Hot Cross Buns" on the recorder.
  • Don't worry if you missed out on this one, though, there will be another one next month. Just be sure to watch Insta for the details.

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