Pop-up Dinners Are All the Rage in Delaware

One-off dinners and limited culinary promotions are hot stuff at restaurants in the First State's dining scene.

On a Wednesday night, something unusual was happening at Drip Café in Hockessin. The brunch spot beloved for caramel-apple pancakes flecked with bacon was open after hours, and guests were tucking into house-made ricotta cavatelli with a short rib ragu—not pancakes—and sipping red wine instead of coffee.

Welcome to Delaware’s version of a pop-up—extraordinary experiences designed to please the palate and satisfy the craving for an in-the-know experience. “People love exclusivity,” says Robert Lhulier, who specialized in pop-ups before opening Snuff Mill Restaurant, Butchery & Wine Bar in Brandywine Hundred.

Limited seating and FOMO-generating social media posts create cachet. After Drip Café’s February event sold out, owner Greg Vogeley added a second night. Similarly, a pop-up at Scout Café in Wilmington sold out within four days of the announcement.

- Advertisement -
Nicholas Qaabar, owner of Scout Café in Wilmington, serves guests at a pop-up dinner outside the café, which usually closes in the afternoon. Pop-ups give a limited number of customers the chance to try special menu items, such as vegetarian dishes, in a unique setting.
Nicholas Qaabar, owner of Scout Café in Wilmington, serves guests at a pop-up dinner outside the café, which usually closes in the afternoon. Pop-ups give a limited number of customers the chance to try special menu items, such as vegetarian dishes, in a unique setting.

Meanwhile, The Chef’s Table at Touch of Italy in Rehoboth is dedicated to pop-up dinners, classes and special and special events. The new facility is already a hit. A $200-per-person Valentine’ Day meal sold out.

What’s in a name?

Technically speaking, a pop-up is a restaurant open for one night or a limited time. Consider Blitzen, a seasonal downtown Wilmington bar and restaurant open during the holidays. Before launching a brick-and-mortar Nick’s Pizza near Prices Corner, owner Nick Vouras “popped up” in Kozy Korner, which is owned by his family.

Typically, musician and personal chef Paul Cullen travels to customers’ homes to prepare meals and serenade guests. Occasionally, he holds culinary events at The Room at Cedar Grove, near Lewes, an event venue that benefits Paul Kares, the charity he co-founded.

Cullen, who specializes in Italian cuisine, has served Barbera wine-poached pears with arugula, toasted walnuts and salty Castelrosso cheese, as well as wild-boar Bolognese with fresh tube-shaped pasta. He pairs the menu with Italian wines from his proprietary portfolio.

As Drip Café demonstrates, establishments can leverage their after-hours availability for pop-ups. Talula’s Table pioneered the concept in 2007, when the Kennett Square market started eight-course tasting dinners.

- Partner Content -

Andrew Cini and partners, including Gerald Allen, have sold noodle soups in the evening at Ciro’s 40 Acres brunch location, which usually closes at 2 p.m. Options might include beef ramen with smoked shoyu, crab and shrimp curry, cold chicken noodles, and shrimp over rice.

Cini’s fans follow his Soup Noodle Soup business on social media, so they know where and when to order and pick up their food. To be sure, Instagram and Facebook have fueled a passion for pop-ups.

Drip Café in Hockessin periodically opens for themed multicourse dinners. For Valentine’s Day, Chef Dan Tagle prepared a beet salad with mixed greens, pickled red onion, blood orange and whipped feta with orange-rosemary dressing.
Drip Café in Hockessin periodically opens for themed multicourse dinners. For Valentine’s Day, Chef Dan Tagle prepared a beet salad with mixed greens, pickled red onion, blood orange and whipped feta with orange-rosemary dressing.

Win-win

Cini has also prepared food for seated pop-ups. For instance, he, Allen and Alex Neaton, chef de cuisine at Longwood Gardens’ 1906 restaurant, participated in a Field to Fork dinner at SIW Vegetables in Chadds Ford. The menu included braised beef ramen, fish crudo with African bird’s-eye chili and swordfish with nori butter.

Such events are leisurely affairs. Chefs and servers don’t need to turn tables to maximize profits, notes Hari Cameron, culinary director of The Chef’s Table. “With a pop-up, you can’t rush people out the door; they’ve bought an experience,” he explains.

For Valentine’s Day, Cameron prepared a four-course menu that included Arrowhead Point oysters with pink peppercorns, caviar and filet mignon—or yellowfin tuna—with heirloom carrots, potatoes and a cherry agrodolce.

- Advertisement -

For chefs, pop-ups offer a change in routine, Lhulier says. Scout Café’s owner, Nicholas Qaabar, would agree. He taps the talent of Bill Courtney, executive chef at Nemours Children’s Hospital in Wilmington. “We offer a creative outlet for him,” Qaabar says.

Drip Café’s executive chef, Dan Tagle, who previously worked at Krazy Kat’s, can flex his fine-dining skills at a pop-up. In addition to the short rib ragu, his winter dinner included roasted red pepper bisque with chive crème fraiche, roasted beet salad with whipped feta and orange-rosemary dressing, and Persian love cake (a vanilla-orange butter cake with raspberry-rose ganache under a chocolate breakaway heart).

A theme enhances the meal. For instance, the second-floor lounge at Hamilton’s on Main in Newark sports a monthly pop-up that has paid homage to Harry Potter and Bridgerton. “With my background in design and Chef Jeremiah’s need to constantly experiment with menu ideas, it’s a perfect opportunity to use our creative minds,” explains Anthony Brooks, who owns Hamilton’s on Main with husband Jeremiah.

For the Moulin Rouge theme, cocktails included the Lady Marmalade Margarita and Because We Can-Can, a blend of Prairie vodka infused with grapefruit, hibiscus and chamomile—with a Pop Rocks rim.

Scout Café has showcased Courtney’s favorite vegan recipes made with seasonal ingredients. “It allowed guests to explore different foods and ways of cooking local, seasonal produce,” Qaabar notes.

At one dinner, guests started with a rutabaga fondu, served with bagel chips and apples, and finished with a chocolate-raspberry cannoli cone. For an entrée, they savored trumpet mushrooms over thyme-and-walnut risotto with wilted spinach and herb gravy.

Farm-to-table

Scout Café has hosted pop-ups both inside and on the outdoor patio. Qaabar says he would like to host one in an unconventional setting in the near future. Indeed, farm-to-table takes on a new meaning when the pop-up is actually on a farm.

SIW’s dinner series, held in a barn, showcases H.G. Haskell’s fresh vegetables. Don’t expect a barbecue. Bill Hoffman from The House of William & Merry in Hockessin once included shrimp ceviche, chilled corn soup and herb-marinated Berkshire pork chops. (Given there’s no stove, cold dishes are a plus.)

Downstate, Wyoming-based Fifer Orchards will hold a spring dinner on May 16 and a fall event on Sept. 12. In the past, Nage Catering provided the meal. The farm hired Chef Bill Clifton to lead its dinners, typically with three courses served family-style.

Admittedly, pop-ups on the road are tricky. Organizers must consider electricity, water, restrooms, lighting, parking and weather, all of which will influence the menu, Lhulier points out.

Coverdale Farm has a kitchen, but Chef Michael DiBianca of Ciro Food & Drink still brings the necessary ingredients for up to five courses. The chef has prepared and served heirloom squash bisque, seared tuna loin with spicy sweet-and-sour radishes, Parmesan custard and slow-roasted rosemary pork loin. In short, it’s a lot of work, says Venu Gaddamidi, DiBianca’s parner.

Scout Café’s vegetarian pop-up dinner featured a refreshing salad with jackfruit “crab cake” bites, arugula, roasted corn, pickled red onions and heirloom tomato salsa.
Scout Café’s vegetarian pop-up dinner featured a refreshing salad with jackfruit “crab cake” bites, arugula, roasted corn, pickled red onions and heirloom tomato salsa.

However, SIW’s barn lacks a kitchen, heat and air conditioning. Gaddamidi remembers one evening when it was about 45 F and raining. “We couldn’t use an open fire to cook,” he says. “Everyone in the room was in winter coats and gloves.”

For some, the unpredictability is part of the excitement. Lhulier once cooked on a propane stove and grill for a guest list that included Jamie and Phyllis Wyeth. But he pulled it off.

“There are no obstacles,” the chef says, “only challenges.”

Related: Iris Vineyards Wines Are Perfect for All Occasions in Delaware

Our Best of Delaware Elimination Ballot is open through February 22!

Holiday flash sale ... subscribe and save 50%

Limited time offer. New subscribers only.