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"Pop-Up" Restaurants

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  Waiting outside the pick-up window at Pizza Delicious feels more like a tryst than a standard takeout experience. After calling the number on hand-drawn flyer to get the address, customers picking up their food form a small line in a darkened alley marked only by a hand-painted sign hanging on a fence, proclaiming "PIZZA." The line snakes around an unassuming building that sits on a quiet stretch of North Rampart Street in the Bywater. On a particularly busy night, a customer explains to his friends how the process works in the sort of fervent whisper one might use to lay the ground rules of purchasing from a particular drug dealer: "So it's only on Sundays, and if there's a special, you gotta get it. The specials are great. Call way ahead of time. You'll be waiting sometimes for, like, three or four hours."

  It is not an inaccurate estimate. The one-day-a-week pizza joint draws customers who often wait hours for the New York-style pies doled out by co-owners Michael Friedman and Greg Augarten. Every Sunday since Pizza Delicious opened in February 2010, crowds have gotten larger and the waits longer.

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  "The first week we did it, 30 of our friends showed up or something and then ... just all these people. I don't know them and they're coming from all over the place," Friedman says. "That's the craziest part to me."

  Pizza Delicious originated when Friedman and Augarten, transplanted New Yorkers, couldn't find New York-style pizza. Roommates at the time, the pair made pizzas at home, experimenting with recreating a thin crust and incorporating ingredients they didn't typically find on pizzas in New Orleans.

  "We were just like, 'Aw, man, broccoli rabe on a pizza, no one does that shit here.' We made real goofy-looking pizzas," says Friedman. "But we ate them and thought, 'You know, this is better than most things I've had here.' So we had this ongoing fantasy of opening a pizza place that would be good. But I was teaching high school. Greg was still in his last year of college. It wasn't a reality."

  Not long after, the pair came across a shared kitchen space in the Bywater used by bakers and cooks for independent ventures, and began focusing on perfecting their product. Augarten and Friedman felt it crucial to master a thin, crispy crust and sauce from scratch, with a rotating lineup of ingredients sourced largely from local farmers markets. Experimentation still plays a big role at Pizza Delicious, where the "menu," a blog updated by Friedman (pizzadelicious.blogspot.com), changes every week. Recent pies have included peppadew, Crescent City Farmers' Market arugula, homemade meatballs and pancetta.

  "We just want it to taste better. We take more time. We make our own sauce because it tastes better," said Friedman. "We know what we want, and we try to do that."

Friedman and Augarten, with the help of a small crew of friends they called in after early attempts to go it alone, adopt their shared space on Sundays starting at 5 p.m. This is how Pizza Delicious became the city's first "pop-up" restaurant, a business that pops up in an impermanent or shared space, often with sporadic hours and an unadvertised, speakeasy vibe. The ease of start-up has an appeal to restaurateurs who have made the pop-up restaurant a trend. Chefs in other major cities have embraced the unconventional format, opening successful pop-up ventures in Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and New York City, to name a few. The Pizza Delicious guys say it wasn't a movement they joined intentionally.

  "The idea wasn't to be trendy," says Friedman. "We're aware that these things are going on. But for us, one day was all we could do, so we thought, 'Let's see how that goes.'"

  One of the trend's frontrunners, and perhaps the best example of its successes, is accomplished Los Angeles chef and Top Chef Masters contestant Ludovic Lefebvre, who runs Ludo Bites from a rotation of temporary spaces for a few months at a time. These short-lived spots offer inventive, complex menus, edited or entirely rewritten each time by Lefebvre, so no two Ludo Bites experiences are the same. He began in 2007 at the L.A. bakery Breadbar.

  "The pop-up restaurant started by accident for me," says Lefebvre. "I did not want to be tied to the huge expenses of [a fine dining restaurant]. You can't eat the curtains and the paint on the walls and the only thing that should matter is what was on the plate.

  "I never anticipated anything. It was just a way for me to do what I love: cook," Lefebvre adds. "It's so expensive to open a restaurant and it is so hard to predict if a space is right or if the concept is right for the time. It seems to make sense in this day and age; creating a temporary dining experience that allows a chef to express himself."

  In Uptown, New Orleans boasts another pop-up with its own following. Last fall, Uptown diner Slim Goodies began transforming into MVB (Most Valuable Burger) every Sunday night. Already the burger joint has weekly regulars. Partner Rene Louapre says he was inspired by pop-up restaurants in other cities (specifically including Ludo Bites) and by Pizza Delicious, the local "trailblazers," as he calls them.

  For Louapre and his partners at MVB, most of whom are in the restaurant industry, choosing a Sunday night pop-up restaurant was also a logistical decision.

  "In general, form follows function," says Louapre. "We wanted to do a burger restaurant, but none of us had the time. We just wanted to start testing the concept, so for us, the pop-up restaurant was appealing."

  If it wasn't for the menu taped to the front door of Slim Goodies, walking into MVB wouldn't seem any different from entering a regular restaurant. The dining room is loud and lively, and the operation includes full table service. Like Pizza Delicious, it's cash only.

  While pop-up restaurants are flourishing nationwide, Louapre appreciates that New Orleans diners are, in his opinion, particularly discerning.

  "This is a great food town. You're not going to get any slack cut, whether you're open one day a week or not," he said. "You've got to make good food. We're going to do the best burger we can."

On the other side of the Pizza Delicious pickup window, a similar dedication to customers is evident in the kitchen. The phone rings constantly and the window is never empty. While frantic and unprofessional in a way — bills go from the customer's wallets to an employee's hands to a Styrofoam takeout container — there also is a sense of harmony and order.

  In the middle of one Sunday's rush, a friend sends Friedman a text message, which he reads aloud to the staff: "Ordering Pizza Delicious is like being the fifth caller in a radio sweepstakes." The staff laughs, but they all seem disappointed when, shortly thereafter, a customer opts out of ordering after being told the wait time. A tally is marked on a sheet of paper labeled "NOs."

  Customers at the window are patient and appreciative. "It was hard to find good pizza in New Orleans," says Uptown resident and Pizza Delicious customer Paul Kellogg. "And this is also something to do. It's fun."

  "We knew people liked pizza and would want to eat pizza," says Augarten. "That's not a secret. But we have people coming back every week telling us how important we are to them. It's like an experience to them. So we're not just a pizza place, we're a story. Or an event."

POP!

Pizza Delicious

pizzadelicious.blogspot.com

Twitter: @pizzadelicious

MVB

3322 Magazine St. (at Slim Goodies)

Twitter: @MVBurger

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