Pop-up dining and poetry: a marriage made in heaven or recipe for divorce?

Pop is my least favourite word in the English language (why ‘pop’ something into the oven when you can ‘put’ it, why ‘pop’ out when you can go out?) but, strangely, ‘pop-up’, at least when applied to restaurants, is one of my favourites. They are, for the uninitiated, temporary restaurants: the locations, menus, chefs and chances to try them are all for one night only. If you miss a pop-up event, it won’t ever be repeated, at least not in exactly the same format, with the same menu and chef. The attraction, therefore, is the rarity: unlike a fixed restaurant which prides itself on its consistency, its ability to churn out the same thing night after night to the same exacting and hopefully brilliant standards, a pop-up offers a once-in-a-lifetime chance to try a particular combination of chef, location and menu.

I have been to three, two run by Daniel Young of young and foodish as part of his BurgerMonday series and, this week, one run by We Eat Poets. The first two were just about the food; the latter, as its name suggests, combined food with poetry reading. I was really excited about the We Eat Poets night: first, it was only my second invite as a food blogger which made me feel very special and, second, what could be better than trying food from a new British charcuterie company and a little bit of poetry? Well, actually, quite a lot as it turns out.

Let me be upfront about this: I paid for my young and foodish experiences and I was a guest at We Eat Poets so I feel uncomfortable about finding fault. The experience has taught me a very very important lesson: in the land of food blogging, always pay for yourself and then if you don’t like it you can say so without a qualm. I have never felt so conflicted about a post as I have about this one and have spent a day wondering about whether I should or could write something negative. However, if I had paid £40 for my experience, as some of the others in the room will have done, I would have complained much more vociferously, both on the night and here, so I feel, both for my own integrity and for the integrity of a product, that I need to be honest. Especially since I think that good feedback on a nascent venture is not only useful but necessary.

Let’s start with the positives. Brunswick House Cafe, where the event took place, is lovely; it’s an old Georgian mansion that is part of Lassco, an architectural salvage company that features in most posh UK home decoration magazines. The room we were in was, I believe (I have Fay Maschler’s review to thank for this) once a ballroom and a music hall. Now it is the dining room of the cafe and the heart of the We Eat Poets venture (all their events, so far, have taken place here). It is higgledy-piggledy, full of mismatched chairs and tables and lit with a series of, by turns, beautiful and alarming ceiling lights from all centuries. So far, so perfect. The food, what there was of it (this is a key complaint), was delicious and surprising; I have never eaten black pudding with quince and walnuts but I hope to again very soon. The service was smiley at all times, though, as with most pop-ups, there wasn’t a lot (when there’s no menu choice and you buy your own drinks at the bar it’s not so important) and the atmosphere was lively and leisurely which is a difficult balance to strike.

But, oh but…there was SO much that could have been better. Let me place my biggest card and complaint on the table. I went for the food; even though I have a literature degree, PhD in the same subject and have spent years reading, teaching and liking if not always loving poetry, the fact that there would be poetry was, for me, a secondary interest. The evening, however, was organised in such a way that, as far as I and two of my (paying) neighbours were concerned, it was obvious that the poetry was primary. It was part of every course, and instead of feeling like a natural part of the proceedings, it felt shoehorned in and, in some instances, was just too long; one of the last poems went on for a good fifteen minutes so most of us at our table gave up on the polite hushed silence and started talking and eating again. We agreed that it was a bit like speeches at a wedding: you’d just got warmed up as a table, talking to complete strangers whilst indulging in the relative intimacy of eating together, and then someone stood up and interrupted you with a long rambling speech. If, as it seemed, the entertainment is considered more important than the eating, I would humbly suggest make this a poetry slam with drinks, and forget about the food.

Because it felt like that act of forgetting had already happened. At my previous pop-up experiences the food, and learning about it, was central not marginal. Daniel Young made a point of introducing himself to every table at the events, in the most non-intrusive and easygoing way, and talking about what we were eating or about to eat. I learnt about the dressing, about Kappacasein cheese and about who makes brioche in London and why they are brilliant for burgers. I left with more knowledge about food, particularly about London suppliers, and a full stomach.

On Wednesday night, not only did no one talk to us about what was being served, the portions were tiny. And worse, you had to share them. I was at a table of ten, and there were three side plates of each dish for all of us. Even with my appalling maths I know that three figs are not going to split equally between ten people. Three portions of romanesco with Lord of the Hundreds and preserved lemon came with only one plate of bread; there were only six thin slices of black pudding and the last course which was cheese consisted of the sort of thin slivers you’d expect in a fine French restaurant as a refresher before the dessert. And god help you if you arrived late or ever left the table: there would sometimes be nothing left on your return. Most shockingly, when three of my compadres went out for a cigarette they came back to discover that the three measly plates of stuffed gourds had all gone and one of the poetry organisers, who was sitting at my table, actually said ‘sorry guys, there’s not much left’. Did he not think to get up and go and get them some more? No, obviously not.

Finally, none of the food organisers introduced themselves to the room or to each table. There was a menu, or rather there were two menus for a table of ten, but how many people know what lardo is, or sobrasada? I bet I wasn’t the only one who wondered where and why someone started making sobrasada and chorizo, both meat products from sunny Spain, in rainy Wales. I introduced myself to one of the Cannon brothers and he was, of course, lovely but, as a foodie, a punter and, yes, a blogger one of the pleasures is to find out more about the people behind the event.

So how would I improve it? First, if there is a no-choice menu with no alcohol bar a welcome drink included for £40 then serve enough of it and serve it on individual plates (the young and foodish tickets which are about the same price include complimentary alcohol and three courses of your own…). I still can’t get over the fact that three people at my table had to eat the dregs of the main course because they weren’t there when it was served and, worse, that one of the organisers witnessed this and did nada. Second, tell us about the food: come and meet us at the table and share your passion and knowledge about these products and how they’ve been cooked; it is that personal quality that makes a pop-up special and worth the ticket price. And third, honestly, I think the combination of poetry, which needs a quiet room and the ability to listen, with tables full of strangers trying to get their forks on a few mouthfuls of food and feeling like they have to whisper because some guy is going on about the seventh circle of hell and is making us feel like we are in it, is not a successful one. I’d recommend a divorce…

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3 Responses to Pop-up dining and poetry: a marriage made in heaven or recipe for divorce?

  1. Evelyn says:

    Brava! I think that experiences like these should always be critiqued for good and bad. After all, these are social events with some commercialism behind them and the purpose is to both entertain and nourish. While I can completely understand why you were giddy at the prospect of this evening, it sounds like much was left to be desired. Still, it’s another experience for you as a food blogger which is only a good thing!

  2. Joe Cannon says:

    I echo the congratulations on being honest – one of the massive challenges about starting new ventures (and here I confess my interest – I am one of the Cannon brothers, and one of the partners in this venture – but no idea whether I am the lovely one you speak of) is the amount of smoke you get blown up your rear by people (often your family, friends etc) keen to see you succeed. What you need, as opposed to what feels good, is people saying when something’s wrong. So thank you.

    I won’t try and address all the points – I think I agree that there wasn’t enough food this time (last time there was too much – half the cheese went uneaten as everyone said they were stuffed – it is a fine balance), and I’m glad you thought what there was of it was good. I am sorry no-one came to talk to you about it though – in fact, I like nothing better than talking about the food we source, but Sean and I have both been anxious not to make this event too much about us – I felt a bit awkward to be clapped twice for our new stall at Borough, and neither of us want to be celebrities – but I take on board what you say and will think it through.

    Anyway – thanks for your honesty – our first less-than-glowing review (and no, not all the good ones have been from friends and family, promise!) and plenty of food for thought.

    • Louise says:

      Nice of you to comment; thanks Joe. It’s good to know you agree with me on some of the points and don’t feel too bashed by it. And, yes, it was you that I spoke to (we had a long conversation about children!) and please do talk more about the food. Or, perhaps, determine if there is an appetite for more info about the food? I’d have thought there was but then, as I said, literature-lover I may be but the food was the main attraction for me. Am going to come and see you at Borough as soon as I can. Cheers, Louise

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