TAMPA — Opening night at any restaurant can be a roller coaster experience: a brand new menu, an untested kitchen staff, servers feeling their way around new surroundings, and curious customers with high expectations.
It's a challenge under any circumstance, and even more so when the restaurant plans to close after just 10 days.
But Jeannie Pierola likes challenges.
Pierola, one of the Tampa Bay area's most celebrated chefs after a decade in the kitchens of Bern's and Sidebern's, is in the midst of an experiment called pop-up dining in which she takes over another restaurant for a short run of fine dining in a casual setting.
The concept is sensible in this economy. It is an expensive and risky proposition to open a restaurant, even for an established chef like Pierola. So instead, chefs are forming symbiotic relationships in which they come in to an existing breakfast-lunch restaurant for a limited time to serve dinner. The chef gets a place to cook. The restaurant gets exposure to new clientele. Dining becomes an event.
Pierola set up her temporary shop in Tampa at Pinky's, a diner known for its sandwiches and many varieties of eggs Benedict. Most meals are under $10. After Pinky's closes at 2, Pierola breaks out white tablecloths, upgrades the glasses and silverware, embraces the kitsch and puts out her Kitchen Bar menu for the dinner crowd. Her run at Pinky's will end Nov. 20, and another one is planned in a different, unidentified restaurant, probably in January.
The financial risks are mitigated, but that doesn't mean there is no risk. Reputations are on the line, namely Pierola's.
"There's no question that the traditional route is not that easy this time,'' said Pierola, 48, who left Bern's and Sidebern's in 2007 and has spent three years consulting with restaurants and planning her next venture. "It's hard and it's stressful. . . . I hope I can beg patience. This is an experiment I'm trying.''
She sees the pop-up approach as a way to try out new dishes and new techniques. She will keep what works, abandon what doesn't, all likely leading to a traditional restaurant somewhere in the Tampa Bay area. She says she has picked out a site and is negotiating a lease, but is not ready to say where.
"It is a challenge and I just hope that it's driven by the food,'' she said. "It's always about the food for me.''
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Los Angeles chef Ludovic Lefebvre is often credited with the popularization of the idea of the restaurant to go, which joins other movable dining trends such as the food truck and the underground dinner (which is like the pop-up concept, but generally secretive, clubby and one-night only).
Lefebvre's LudoBites has inhabited six structures so far (including once in an art gallery), and each iteration is announced on Twitter, at which point reservations for the entire run disappear. The concept got a boost with Levebvre's appearance on Top Chef Masters, and accolades have followed. LudoBites was named one of the 99 essential restaurants in Los Angeles by L.A. Weekly this week, despite the fact that it has no fixed address or phone number.
It isn't just a big city concept. In Dade City, Curtis Beebe was looking for a new gig after his IT job was eliminated. An avid entertainer, he had heard more than once that he should open a restaurant, but rather than make the commitment with no experience, he started a series of dinners at a local women's club. Over the course of 10 weeks this summer, he hosted five dinners for 40 to 100 people, marketed strictly on Facebook and his e‑mail list.
"I just wanted to know if I was good enough that people would pay to eat the food I was cooking," he said.
He was confident enough after the experience to open his own place, Pearl in the Grove on St. Joe Road. It opened two weeks ago, and Beebe said that the lessons learned during his renegade operation helped him figure out how to get 100 dinners to the table, how to set up service, how to buy food.
It also taught him the power of interacting with his customers.
"When I found beet and beet greens at the farm, I asked some of the diners if they liked beets as much as I did, and how they'd like to see them served," he said. "People are interested in being in the conversation."
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It is unfair to review a restaurant until it has had time to work out the kinks and find a groove. The Times food critic generally waits several weeks after opening night before making a first visit to a new restaurant.
So, how to assess a place that will be open only 10 days?
Separate diners went to Kitchen Bar on Tuesday's opening night and then on the third night and compared notes. On Night One, there was a bit of chaos in the dining room, with gaps in service causing some weary-of-waiting diners to leave before taking one bite. For those who stayed, dinner took about three hours, even without dessert.
By the third night, the scene was no less chaotic, but it was more controlled. Service was fairly steady, and while the time between courses was uneven, we got small, medium and large courses — and dessert — in a shade over two hours.
As is often the case, adventurous eaters may want to make a meal of a table full of the small-plate offerings. Favorites included the little neck clams ($7), which come with a salsa verde and tender pork belly, and Pierola's fingerling potato bourguignon ($7), which takes the classic beef preparation and makes the potato the star. The red wine sauce is thick and rich enough that the beef wasn't even missed. While the lamb tenderloin entree ($26) was perfectly cooked and tender, it was a favorite on the strength of the side of beet soubise, a creamy take on the root vegetable that evoked risotto.
Desserts were underwhelming. Torrejas ($5) is a riff on French toast with bananas and dates, but had dry spots. Green tea opera cake ($7) was better, largely because of the accompanying double chocolate ice cream.
Wine is a bring-your-own affair, though accommodations are made to have wine ordered in advance and delivered from a local store. Implementation there was not initially smooth. A white wine ordered through this process was not chilled on arrival.
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So far, despite the speed bumps, Pierola's experiment is going well. Every reservation slot is filled, though Pierola is keeping bar and patio seats open for walk-ins.
"To me the response has been mind blowing," she said. "This is a tremendous response of what is a really sizable food community here now. To think there are so many people out there like me is thrilling.''
Tom Scherberger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8312. Jim Webster can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8746. They dine anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.