Despite what you may have heard, underground pop-up dinners in Los Angeles aren't extinct; they've just gone further down the rabbit hole. Hence the forthcoming expansion of Dinner Lab, a nationwide private pop-up dinner service that looks to marry the experience of fine dining, seriously out-of-the-box dinner destinations and lots and lots of data (more on that in a minute).
The Dinner Lab crew, helmed by Brian Bordainick and a few of his closest friends, grew out of a mutual frustration at the late night dining scene in New Orleans. Despite some of the friendliest drinking laws in the country, New Orleans' late night food options have been nearly non-existent for years, which led Bordainick and his pals to begin a series of twilight pop-up dinners throughout the city. Without the proper permitting, know-how or capital to operate within a fully operational restaurant, the group would throw dinner parties in warehouses, on rooftops — basically anywhere that seemed cool and had running water.
After retooling their business model to, you know, try and actually make some money, the Dinner Lab team was officially formed, with the idea of creating a private yearly membership of willing diners who would plunk down the annual fee plus the cost of a coursed-out and drink-paired meal in some of the area's most obscure and eclectic settings.
Dinner Labs now exist in New York City, Austin, Nashville and New Orleans, pushing the same communal dining agenda in a variety of unique locations. And this week — in fact, today, on Wed., Sept. 25 — it's finally coming to Los Angeles.
Far more than just a cool dinner in a weird space for people who can afford it — although, to be fair, it is that as well — Dinner Lab looks to act as an incubator for a city's best culinary up-and-comers. Instead of pairing with top name chefs and gaudy brands, Dinner Lab mostly seeks to eschew the spotlight, instead letting the light shine on the line cooks and sous chefs who help keep those big names in business. These are the truly hungry cooks, spending countless hours under someone else while dreaming of their own restaurant some day. And with Dinner Lab, those enterprising souls can workshop their potential restaurant menus within the confines of an existing dinner series.
The private events are held twice a week in every city, which means a short Dinner Lab stint can offer chefs the opportunity to showcase their potential menus for dozens of eaters in a short amount of time; something that's not really possible with the traditional restaurant opening model. Plus, the experienced eaters are almost all local — 75% of the seats at any given engagement are reserved for members who live in the same city as their reservation — and every patron is expected to fill out a rating card that highlights what worked and what didn't from the evening's courses. All of that data is collected and crunched, leaving chefs with an accurate look at the positives and negatives from their time at Dinner Lab.
It's a heady approach, but one the team hopes will pay off soon. Successful chefs with a high score card have the opportunity to try out their meals in other Dinner Lab markets, with the eventual hope of opening their own restaurant, in part using the raw data collected over so many private meals. If it works, Dinner Lab's data-driven approach could change the way young chefs go about starting their own restaurants.
But that's all number-crunching nonsense, really. At its heart, Dinner Lab is still expected to be a community-driven culinary experience, offering Los Angeles eaters the opportunity to dine with strangers in some of the most creative spaces around town — for a $175 annual fee, plus the cost of each reserved dinner. So if you've got the money, love pushing the boundaries of your own dining experiences and love the idea of shifting the new restaurant paradigm, Dinner Lab may be perfect for you.
Membership slots for Dinner Lab's new L.A. outpost go on sale Sept. 25 (that's today) for $175 apiece, and are expected to sell out quickly.
Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook. Farley Elliott writes about food, drink and entertainment at OverOverUnder.com.