Monika Maeckle

Somewhere between the pot luck supper and the private dinner party, the pop-up dinner emerged, and I’m so thankful for that.

Not that long ago, we routinely hosted friends for drinks, appetizers, wine, and dinner followed by a rich dessert and cognac.  Everything was lovingly prepared from scratch, using recipes culled from the family archives or improvised from the latest editions of Gourmet, Fine Cooking and Bon Appetit.  Friends reciprocated.  We took turns.

Jennifer Dobbertin’s Riff Raff Supper Club, the latest in a series of pop-up dinner events, took place on the riverside lawn of Josephine and Marshall V. Davidson Jr.’s King William home –photo by Peter French

But like those thick cooking magazines and the print advertising that supported them, the dinner party has grown scarce.  The tradition has become prohibitively labor intensive and expensive.  We’re all so “busy.”

The escalation of our food values has also contributed to the demise of the dinner party.  These days we expect our meals to be fair traded, sustainably harvested,  locally sourced, expertly prepared, delicious, healthy and organic.  The Food Channel and Michael Pollan have practically painted us into a corner:  no one wants to host a dinner that won’t impress their guests.  And then there’s the declared food preferences of friends:  vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, allergic to shellfish—not to mention cleaning up.  Who has the time?

Yet few evenings can equal a gathering with friends and their well-vetted guests to expand one’s social sphere and sate appetites for food, spirits, and interesting conversation with people whose paths would never intersect, were it not for an invitation.

Pork ribs and octopus salad by Riff Raff Supper Club's Jennifer Dobbertin
Pork ribs and green papya salad by Riff Raff Supper Club’s Jennifer Dobbertin –Photo by Peter French

Enter the pop-up dinner.  They are filling the gap left by the endangered dinner party. A relative newcomer to the San Antonio food scene, the tradition has been around for years in New York and L.A. and made its way here in early 2011.  Supper clubs, the pop-up precursor, have been around for decades, apparently starting in Hollywood, California.   Those, along with food trucks, have made their way to San Antonio, too:  the Southtown Supper Club, and more recently, the Starlight Project.

A strict definition eludes us, but in general pop-up dinners are temporary, one-time food events, often staged by foodies or aspiring chefs in a fun location and with the help of artistic friends.   Some pop-ups include performances, art shows, or hand-crafted plates or a potted culinary herb that guests take home as souvenirs.  Sometimes it’s just about the food. News of the pop-up typically travels via social networks and word-of-mouth, resulting in a gathering of like-minded folks who relish an off-beat evening out.  Prices can range from $50 – $150 per ticket, and can sell out within hours.

Tim McDiarmid, Tim the Girl
Tim McDiarmid, Tim the Girl –photo by Xelina Flores

Edgy Brooklyn transplant and foodie caterer Tim McDiarmid, known as “Tim the Girl,” spearheaded the franchise for cool, fun pop-up events in San Antonio.  Tim (yes, that’s her real name), introduced the concept to San Antonio via Contemporary Art Month (CAM) in March of 2011 with woodworking artist and furniture craftsman Peter Zubiate.

“Food is art as much as anything else, so let’s showcase the food,” said McDiarmid, reflecting on the pop-up’s evolution in San Antonio since then.  “That one came about, but I didn’t think beyond it,” said McDiarmid.  “We did it as a project of CAM.   I was new in my business, new in town, and wanted to showcase our work.”

McDiarmid and Zubiate began staging monthly pop-up dinners under the banner of  The Special Projects Social (SPS), a series of pop-up restaurants designed to facilitate the experience of food, beauty, craft and society.  See Sharon Armstrong’s profile of McDiarmid and “Al Dente” her most recent pop-up event.

San Antonio has seen pop-up dinners pop up with regularity since McDiarmid paved the way.  And again, I am thankful for that.

The San Antonio Chef’s Coalition, a brotherhood of some of San Antonio’s most respected  chefs, staged a pop-up in March that raised thousands of dollars for culinary programs in high schools. The coalition has organized four pop-ups since then. Businesses such as The Richter Company have experimented with pop-ups, hosting wine and apps parties in their place of work.  The City of San Antonio has even co-opted the pop-up with this Saturday’s Better Block festival, complete with “pop-up retail.”

Jennifer Dobbertin, a.k.a. Jenn Dobbs
Jennifer Dobbertin, a.k.a. Jenn Dobbs: “I would love to own a noodle bar.” –Photo by Hugh Daschbach

One of the newest offshoots of this trend has been Jennifer Dobbertin’s Riff Raff Supper Club, which has taken on the foodie social challenge with panache and flair–and at the relatively affordable price point of $50 per person.  When Dobbertin, a.k.a. Jenn Dobbs, announced the inaugural Riff Raff Supper Club on Facebook in late November, the event sold out in 20 hours.

Dobbertin lived in Thailand for almost five years and has been jonesing for Thai street food ever since she moved back to the States. Until recently a “purely recreational, self-taught cook,” she tired of a career in social work and a few months ago set out on her path as a culinarian.   Things are moving fast for Dobbertin.

She works part-time at HotJoy, the two-days-a-week restaurant-within-a-restaurant (does that make it a pop-up?) operated by Monterrey proprietor Chad Carey and Chef Quealy Watson.  HotJoy offers innovative Asian food on Sundays and Mondays when the Monty’s kitchen is closed.

Riff Raff Supper Club Inaugural Menu
Riff Raff Supper Club Inaugural Menu: Seven courses, $50. BYOB –Photo by Peter French

Dobbertin executed her first pop-up, a seven-course Thai food extravaganza on the riverside lawn of Marshall and Josey Negley Davidson’s King William home on November 30.  It was BYOB or Trader Joe’s two-buck chuck for drinks, but that night, it was all about the food.   And I am so thankful for that.

She also offers a weekly soup delivery under the label “We Both Love Soup” and takes on sporadic catering gigs. The Riff Raff Supper Club may well be a step toward a full-time catering business or perhaps, someday, a restaurant for Dobbertin.  “I would love to own a noodle bar,” she said.

A San Antonio native, Dobbertin holds a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Texas A & M and a Master’s in International Studies from Webster’s University in Bangkok.  “I grew up in kitchens,” she said, adding “I think I have a good palate.”   Dobbertin explained that she was motivated to start the Riff Raff Supper Club to make her favorite foods available in San Antonio. “I’d been wanting to do it because I wanted to serve all these traditional Asian street foods that are so comforting to me.”

Dishes like jellyfish salad, grilled chicken hearts with Thai chili jam, and fermented pork ribs with green papaya.  Or curried coconut croquettes and five spice braised goose. Dessert: a brilliant marriage of textures, sticky rice topped with mango custard and a crisp brulee sugar crust.

Dobbertin aims to keep her supper prices in the $50-$60 range.  If her next event is as ambitious as her first, it will sell out quickly and become  a memorable hit.   She’s plotting for monthly dinners, probably “last Fridays.” The next one likely will take place December 28.

And once again, I’m so thankful for that.

Monika Maeckle usually writes about gardening, nature and butterflies, but she also loves to eat and cook good food.  Connect with her at the Texas Butterfly Ranch, or via Twitter @monikam.

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Monika Maeckle

San Antonio Report co-founder Monika Maeckle writes about pollinators, native plants, and the ecosystems that sustain them at the Texas Butterfly Ranch website. She is also the founder and director of...