LAST night, around 7.30pm, a group of strangers dressed in similar garish Hawaiian shirts sat down to eat in a beautiful house in which none had ever set foot before.
There, with a fabulous view out to the Firth of Forth and Portobello beach, they tucked into some of the finest vegetarian food Edinburgh has to offer.
Tonight another 30 or so will do the same thing. And again tomorrow in a secret location which boasts the city’s latest “pop-up” restaurant.
Run by Henderson’s, the veggie food institution which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, the pop up nights have a distinct Hawaii 5-0 theme, with pineapple a major ingredient in the tropical themed night. But by departing from its usual premises, the Hanover Street restaurant is simply following where other foodies have already popped.
The idea of a restaurant, bar or shop appearing overnight in unlikely places and on a temporary basis has caught on in the UK over the last year, though like most trends it began in the United States apparently as a reaction to the recession - who wants big overheads of running a permanent place? – and now looks set, ironically, to stay.
As Simon Preston, Henderson’s 50/50 festival director says: “It gives our chefs the chance to break out from the normal menu, gives them a real challenge with the theme and it gives the diners a thrill not knowing until nearly the last minute where they’re going to eat and what they’ll be eating.
“It gives the whole dining experience an extra element of excitement, rather than just booking a table and being able to look at the menu online beforehand.
“It took us a while to find our venue, but it’s beautiful and we think people will love being there – and also on the beach where we’ll serve some drinks and canapes as well.
“I think pop-up restaurants have really got people talking about food and the dining experience and that’s a good thing.”
TV chef and owner of his eponymous restaurant Mark Greenaway agrees. He has organised a pop up event at his place next month when London restaurant Ceviche (pronounced Ceveechay) will take over, giving a masterclass in cooking Peruvian food before serving it up to the 30 lucky diners who manage to get a ticket.
“I’ll be a diner in my own restaurant which will be a first,” he laughs. “Ceviche is massive in London. There wasn’t a restaurant like it before, and it began as a pop-up place itself before becoming a permanent fixture.
“There’ll be a cooking class to learn how to make ceviche for about 15 people, then dinner for 30. It’s a one-off, never before available, so people will be really interested.
“I think that’s the beauty of the pop up idea – being able to offer something different to customers, a whole new dining experience, which is why it’s really caught on.”
One of the first pop-up restaurants in Edinburgh was Burgher Burger, which described itself as “guerilla dining with the establishment”.
Top chefs, including Neil Forbes and Tony Singh, would turn up in greasy spoon cafes and create their idea of a perfect burger.
The brainchild of chef Aoife Behan, tickets for each event sold out within minutes, after word of mouth spread on social media sites – even when diners didn’t know who would be doing the cooking or where the evening would be held.
It was Burgher Burger which also inspired weddings and events caterer Tania Dixon to launch her own pop up restaurant venue last November.
Owner of Ginger Snap, Tania has since held nine events for 22 people in her industrial unit in Leith where diners sit among the fridges. “It couldn’t be less glamourous,” she laughs. “But I think people like that about pop-ups, they’re in places they would otherwise normally wouldn’t be able to access.
“I have no desire to become own a restaurant, but this gives me an outlet to try it and I do it whenever things aren’t too hectic on the catering side.
“I offer three courses and it’s a set menu, there’s no choice. It’s all seasonal and the food gets cooked in front of them too which I think people quite like to see. It’s really taken off.”
Of course there are those who believe that pop-ups do little more than encourage food elitism – few tickets creates demand which means the prices can be raised and if you’re not in the right circles you’ve no chance of even knowing about the last hot pop-up. Malcolm Duck, chairman of the Edinburgh Restaurateurs Association, has also had a pop at them in the past, suggesting that those by amateur chefs could be seen as a challenge to the established industry during a time of recession.
However he adds: “I think when done by restaurants they are quite a good idea. It gets the staff out doing something different in a new environment and can bring new people to the table.
“That’s very different from the idea of outside restaurants coming to Edinburgh and putting up a big marquee somewhere and taking business away from those struggling to survive week in week out. That’s no good for the industry. Places like Henderson’s though doing a pop-up as offering something different, well that can only be a good thing.”
And, says Simon Preston, pop-ups are mostly about spontaneous fun – at least for the diners.
“It’s taken us a long time to prepare for this, but the fleeting nature of pop-ups gives a sense of excitement and urgency and fun and we think people will respond really well to that.”
For more information on Henderson’s 50/50 visit www.hendersonsofedinburgh.co.uk/50.
To book tickets for Ceviche at Mark Greenaway visit http://cevicheuk.com/edinburgh