On a stormy Sunday night late last fall, I pulled into a darkened parking spot in the Funk Zone and scurried to an industrial building’s unmarked door left slightly ajar. I closed my umbrella, followed the sounds of echoing music down a long, dimly lit hallway, and placed a small wad of cash into an envelope.
It was time for dinner.
Taking a seat at one end of a long table cut from a single slab of pine, I introduced myself to the woman on my right, who said, by way of greeting, “I haven’t eaten all day!”
This was my first time to Spare Parts Bistro, a weekly supper-club-meets-pop-up restaurant, and somewhere between the polenta with black truffles and 63° egg and the crispy pork belly over clams and braising greens, I realized this was most certainly not hers — and that skipping the daylong fast in preparation for such a meal was rather a rookie move.
Around the country, rogue dining operations like Spare Parts have gained traction in recent years, thanks to a confluence of factors: the rise of foodie culture and the rockstarification of chefs; a down-in-the-dumps economy that’s left the opening-my-own-restaurant pipe dream out of reach for many chefs and diners hungry for a more “authentic” experience; and DIY marketing made easy thanks to Facebook and Twitter. In 2009, when celebrated chef Ludo Lefebvre opened LudoBites — a bistro that would pop up in the off hours at L.A. restaurant/bakery Breadbar — to great fanfare, the trend was officially legitimized.
Of course, legitimacy can be the death knell for trends that exist on the fringes and for which the shroud of illegitimacy — or whiff of questionable legality — is part of the allure. But then, in Santa Barbara, trends take a while to trickle down. Spare Parts’ Alvaro Rojas is the first to admit this. The longtime area restaurateur (Alcazar, Milk & Honey, and the weeks-old Bourbon Room) is the production half of the duo that makes up Spare Parts, and, though he’s managed to find a solid niche in the Santa Barbara restaurant market — for which, he’s quick to say, he’s incredibly grateful — he’s clear-eyed about the city’s food scene. “There are some gems that are starting to reflect what’s happening in the bigger cities,” Rojas said, but “[Santa Barbara] is always about five years behind at least, really five to 10.”
By that math, Spare Parts is right on time. The operation is a collaboration between Rojas and chef Weston Richards that began with a couple of low-profile test runs in October 2011, after a conversation about concept over beers. The two knew each other through a mutual friend; Rojas had long held the idea of a supper club in the back of his head, and, it turned out, Richards had, too. Richards’s is a familiar face to Barbarinos who like to eat out, and not just because the bearded, redheaded chef is an unmistakable lumberjack of a guy; he’s worked the kitchens of Sage & Onion, the Wine Cask, and Intermezzo, and helped open Julienne, where he stayed for four years and which he left to pursue Spare Parts.
For Richards and Rojas, the endeavor is about creating a holistic experience. Every aspect of an evening at Spare Parts has been considered, from the food on down to the table on which it’s served. Truly: Rojas’s friend, who worked at a lumberyard in San Luis Obispo, tipped him off to a couple slabs of wood that had been sitting around for years, which Rojas and Richards bought, sanded, and varnished themselves, and which they now use as the dinner and prep tables at every Spare Parts event. Rojas calls the tables the “anchor,” and they are, in fact, so much a part of the Spare Parts signature that the guys will transport them to and from venues, despite the fact that the dinner table is nearly as big as a Volkswagen Beetle. In some ways, the tables crystallize the entire Spare Parts concept: Everything is handcrafted, sometimes painstakingly so — Richards even makes his own cheese and charcuterie — and made, to quote their tagline, “with love.”
Food, a Love Story
Making everything with love means that each dinner represents about 40 hours of work on Richards’s part, planning menus, shopping, talking to farmers and fishmongers, emailing the menus to his mailing list, and doing whatever prep can be done ahead of time. The dinners go down on Sundays and, sometimes, on special occasions like New Year’s Eve or the Saturday before the Super Bowl instead of Super Bowl Sunday. The guest list is capped at 20; the location, revealed upon RSVP. The invitations, exquisite pieces of food porn emailed early to mid-week, contain the details of that week’s menu, typically comprising five courses. Sometimes there’s a theme, as in the Eat With Your Hands menu; sometimes Richards scores a special ingredient, like first-of-the-season chanterelles or last-of-the-season spiny lobster, and makes that the centerpiece; sometimes it’s just five inspired dishes you might be more inclined to expect someplace with white tablecloths and a sommelier. But, Richards said, with the exception of the dessert course, where his bacon-maple crème brûlée often makes an appearance, he almost never repeats a dish.
Where some chefs might find the idea of conceiving five new dishes every week intimidating, Richards disagrees. “It’s limiting in some ways. I have a backlog of dishes that I want to do; I have pages of notes and things in my head of dishes I want to do that I just don’t have enough opportunity to put out there, doing this only once a week,” he said.
That doesn’t stop him from taking risks, however: “A lot of times I’ll put a dish out on a Sunday night to a group of hungry people, and that’ll be the first time that I’ve ever put all of those things together on one plate. That’s one of the things that really spoke to me about doing this, was being able to take a chance and step away from the pressures of day-to-day service and really use this as a kind of food lab.”
And, it must be said, Richards makes no bones about the appeal of ultimate control. “As a chef, it’s nice to be able to do whatever I want, to do only a set menu and not have choices or substitutions or anything like that,” he told me one Saturday afternoon while making a ridgeback shrimp stock for use in a bisque with rockfish and manila clams he’d serve the following night. “I’ve been really lucky. I’ve been able to write menus pretty much wherever I’ve been for probably eight to 10 years, but I always want more,” he said. “I want to do everything, from the tables to the music I play to the way the menu is laid out and designed … chefs are notorious control freaks, and I’m no exception. I don’t think we could do what we do if we weren’t.”
Beyond indulging this control-freakishness — or, more generously, creating a setting where one is free to present a complete vision, from start to finish, exactly as one has imagined it — the enterprise has other draws. Chief among them is cash (or, more accurately, the lack thereof): Pop-ups and supper clubs offer chefs a way to test-drive a vision while mitigating financial risk. And the risks can be steep. The restaurant business is notoriously fickle. According to John Dickson, a k a “The Restaurant Guy” of this newspaper and santabarbara.com, in Santa Barbara in 2012 there were 48 restaurant openings … and 42 closings. Three restaurants both opened and closed in 2012. Even if a restaurant’s concept is solid and its execution perfect, it’s always a bit of a crapshoot whether or not it’ll catch on before being swamped by startup expenses and carrying costs. But in the case of Spare Parts, Richards said, “My investment can be measured in thousands of dollars versus hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Additionally, knowing exactly how many guests are coming each week makes shopping and inventory easier (and makes using rare or more expensive, perishable ingredients more practical than in a traditional restaurant), and as Rojas said, “Once you hit that number, you’re like, okay, I know how much we’re gonna make, we can cover our expenses, and we just get to offer our art to these people.”
For chef Michael Glazer, who has been hosting a supper club of sorts since 2011, the allure has more to do with flexibility. After years of working in restaurants, ranging from Pasta 101 in Isla Vista to the Four Seasons and Woodfire Grill in Atlanta, once his son was born in 2009, Glazer said he realized, “I wanted to be connected to the industry but not married to it.”
With his wife working full-time, Glazer stayed home with his son for nearly a year and a half before thinking, “Okay, what am I going to do now?” Maintaining family time was paramount — a lofty goal when one party’s holding down a nine-to-fiver and the other’s working a kitchen. Pasta-making was a passion, and he already had the machinery, so he found a commissary kitchen space in which to make it, and then things “snowballed.”
He began serving lunches a couple of days a week in the space — another hidden gem tucked into the Funk Zone — and then, in June 2011, he thought, why not do a dinner, too? Glazer’s weekly dinners are held on Fridays and have been, thus far, all vegetarian, four-course affairs designed to showcase his pasta — so fresh some diners find themselves eating it when it’s just an hour old. “I just wanted that creative expression,” he said. “Artistically, it gets the juices flowing again.”
Ayda Robana, who deals mostly in high-end personal cheffing and catering (as Om Sweet Mama), has hosted a handful of one-offs at various locations around town, in the true pop-up tradition (one five-course “crudo” dinner held in the courtyard of a downtown business — crudo because it was late summer and, in this particular location, there was no source of heat for cooking — another at a downtown “barn”). For her, the attraction has as much to do with getting to know the community and the challenge of effecting a restaurant atmosphere in a non-restaurant space as it does the food.
“[They’re] spaces not necessarily used for dining, so that presents a whole other component because it’s like a clean slate,” Robana said. For her, pop-up dinners are “about sharing my excitement about food with the community in a way that isn’t usually possible for me on my daily basis. It’s like, this is my gift to offer to the community, whoever is excited about food or the concept of farm-to-fork and innovative cooking and has a real appreciation for this kind of dining experience. It’s a lot more intimate than dining at a restaurant. So much is about who attends because the guests bring this element, like you’re in someone’s home.”
For guests, the appeal is all of this and one more thing: getting to know the chefs. Richards, kind of a shy guy, realized this early on and has forced himself out of his comfort zone and found that he actually kind of likes schmoozing with his diners. Glazer has been known to come out and sit with his guests while they’re eating on particularly slow nights.
The Double Bind
But the pop-up and supper-club format involves significant flipsides. Marketing, for example, presents a conundrum. As Robana, who is planning her next pop-up dinner (at an undisclosed location) for March, put it, “You want the community to know, but you don’t want to get busted.”
Health board regulations require permits for public events where food or drinks are sold, but a private residence can play host to private events, and inviting people, rather than allowing walk-ins, strengthens the argument that an event is private. Of course, this also forces chefs and hosts of pop-up dinners to keep the events hush-hush, which essentially leaves the onus on the would-be diner to seek out these operations, stalk websites and Facebook pages, and request to be added to mailing lists.
Generally, there’s no bill; diners are simply asked for a “suggested donation.” As Rojas said, it’s like having a dinner party and asking everyone to pitch in. (Granted, Spare Parts enjoys the added benefit of having Rojas’s actual restaurant spaces available for use for its dinners, which it has taken advantage of from time to time.) Almost without exception, pop-ups and supper clubs are BYOB. All of which keep these affairs this side of legal.
Non-restaurant business owners who allow pop-ups in their spaces are particularly tight-lipped, worried that, were anything to go wrong, they’d be on the hook.
But many are willing to stick their necks out anyway — often as an act of solidarity. As the business owner who hosted Robana’s crudo pop-up dinner — wooed, perhaps, by the promise of cool sweet pea velouté, local urchin, and Rancho San Julian beef carpaccio —put it, “I think pop-ups are especially vital to a place like Santa Barbara where the high cost of business, coupled with a draconian permitting process, means that creative, challenging restaurants can barely open, let alone thrive.” Of course, this particular business owner only offered this comment on the condition of anonymity.
Just last weekend, a Chinese New Year–themed pop-up dinner was held at a Funk Zone spot that’s held other such events, this one cheffed by Melissa Bishop (Robana’s frequent sous chef) along with Sam and Oliver Woolley of Peads and Barnetts Farms, and featuring Peads and Barnetts heritage Mangalitsa pork. Of this, the owner said only, “No comment.”
Growth, too, is an exercise in tightrope walking. Because Glazer’s Friday-night dinners are held in a space that’s shared, he has to be careful to keep things copacetic with his cotenants. “I would blow it out if it was just me,” he said. He’s thought about doing two seatings or adding one or two Saturday-night dinners a month with perhaps, he said, “a completely different spin … most likely not vegetarian, possibly more expensive.” But then again, he’s quick to remind himself, that will cut into his family time, one of the reasons the whole endeavor appealed to him in the first place.
And, as is so often the case in artistic endeavors, upping the volume might represent a trade-off that hits at the very integrity of the concept itself. As Rojas told me, he and Richards have thought about adding another seating, but, he pointed out, one of the nice things about Spare Parts versus his other restaurants is the lack of pressure to turn tables; people come, they talk, they drink, they burst into spontaneous applause after first course stunners like an even-better-than-it-sounds “deviled egg” with smoked salmon, dill, horseradish crème fraîche, and trout roe, and they linger. It’s well-paced and leisurely, which makes it less like a standard restaurant meal and more like an event — which is to say, one dinner can last the entire evening. “I just don’t like pushing people out of their seats,” he said, “and you can’t start earlier than like 5:30 or 6, so it would get too late.”
How long it can last with its current volume, though, is anyone’s guess. As Richards said, “I’m not getting rich, but I’m surviving.”
Reading the Tea Leaves
It all raises the question: Where do these guys go from here?
For now, Glazer is getting his ducks in a row to start selling his pasta wholesale under the name Mission Rose Pasta and leaning toward adding some Saturday nights. For Spare Parts, whether a traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant — or even another night of service — is in the cards depends on Santa Barbara. Spare Parts took longer to catch on than Richards expected (although, Rojas pointed out, “longer than expected” is typical in the restaurant world). But by the end of 2012, they found themselves turning people away. They’ve built a solid following, too. Miles Carroll is a regular. “When I moved to Santa Barbara, I was afraid it would be lacking in the food culture I enjoyed on the East Coast,” she said. “Spare Parts is a foodie’s dream — the perfect combo of the laid-back, creative vibe of Alcazar and Milk & Honey with the culinary sophistication of Julienne. It’s the bomb.”
Still, the future remains a question. “It takes a lot more than 20 people a week to do a restaurant,” said Richards. “It takes a lot more than a hundred people a week to do a restaurant. Would I go for it if someone were to give me half-a-million dollars to take a shot at this thing? Yeah, I’d go for it, but I don’t have that kind of money to do it myself.
“The same people who complain there’s nothing interesting in this town, as soon as somebody does something interesting, they’ll complain that it’s too expensive, or it’s weird, or they’ll find some reason to complain about it,” said Richards. “I’ve been thinking about Santa Barbara’s food scene forever, too, and wasn’t really doing anything about it. So here I am, trying to do something about it. … As far as what the future holds, I’m not sure, but for now I’m just keeping my head down, keeping making really good food. That’s the best I can do.”