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From market stalls to brick walls: how pop-ups are riding the bricks-and-mortar wave

Ka Pao

With a name and menu that packs a punch, Ka Pao is Glasgow’s latest permanent resident. The new restaurant and bar features the same team who opened rustic Glaswegian site Ox and Finch back in 2014, a restaurant that has garnered much critical acclaim in the city. The Ka Pao concept first began as a residency at SWG3’s Acid Bar, where it served up Malaysian, Singaporean, Thai and Vietnamese-inspired dishes. Like many pop-ups with heart and soul, it garnered a loyal following, and the brand became known for its “daring” food combinations, as well as its penchant for spice and fully-fleshed flavours. 

Its founders’ group announced plans for its permanent residency in a Facebook post back in December, and the site finally opened its doors on 21 January. New menu items feature messy prawns, orange, tamarind and palm sugar caramel; squash and potato curry, cardamom, cumin and coconut and slow-cooked pork cheeks with shiitake mushrooms and galangal. So far, it has received glowing reviews of its exotic array of Asian dishes. 

The Herald Scotland said that the site’s new service was “less breathlessly excited than the pop-up that preceded this, and much better for it”, which bodes well if the team is truly invested in Ka Pao’s permanency. Its new home, the Grade II listed Botanic Gardens Garage, lies in the heart of the city, and the 120-cover site allows ample room for diners. The fact that the team behind the pop-up have successfully run their own restaurant for six years bodes well for the site’s future.

Baba G

Sadly, the world of hospitality can be cutthroat and unforgiving. Sites that thrive as a moveable feast do not always fare in a permanent setting, and one such case is the much-loved Baba G. Run by Alec Owen and his partner Liz Selway, the duo announced they would shut up shop last month, having only opened their permanent Camden site back in May. The Baba G concept actually began back in 2008, and since then, the couple have been a mainstay on the pop-up scene of London

Baba G was famed for giving an authentic Indian twist to contemporary comfort food, and its cult following rocketed as word of its fusion food spread across the capital. Its unique dishes, including its famed lamb jalfrezi burger, club naanwich and chicken tikka nuggets, were all a hit with the London lunch crowd. After the husband and wife team appeared on BBC’s My Million Pound Menu at the start of 2019, this popularity only strengthened. The programme, which sees budding restaurateurs compete for investments, saw the duo fight tooth and nail to be offered a much-coveted £300,000 investment from Michelin-starred chef Atul Kochar.

After the competition, the duo opened the Camden site independently, and initially received solid reviews in the wake of the opening. Although no reason for the subsequent closure has been disclosed, one cannot deny that as a pop-up entity, Baba G was one of the elite. All is not lost, however. The brand will continue to trade at Pop Brixton, Vinegar Yard in London Bridge and the Mercato Metropolitano food hall in Elephant and Castle. It will even continue operating from a street food stall in Camden market, a stone’s throw away from its first permanent site. 

Black Bear Burger

Thankfully, the curse of My Million Pound Menu is lifted with Black Bear Burger. As a contemporary contender of Baba G’s, the burger outlet has proven to be resilient since its stint on the reality show. Although husband and wife team Liz and Stew did not win any investment on the programme, a loyal fan base has steadily risen around the cult burgers they cook up. They opened their first permanent location at Boxpark, Shoreditch, and opened the doors of their very first sit-down restaurant in Brixton last December.

With the ample space brought by the new site, the couple has been able to expand their much-loved menu whilst remaining frills-free. They now offer chicken and vegan burgers, brisket spring rolls and smoked BBQ specials. For the first time ever, Black Bear Burger also has a license to sell booze.

Perhaps the success of Black Bear Burger lies in its simplicity. Its ethos is, quite simply, ‘Simple, Done Well’. The duo, who claims that they “don’t mess around with gimmicks”, use freshly baked bespoke buns, and all burgers are made to spec by their very own butcher. All prep is done in house, from cutting their own fries, and making their own sauces, rubs and condiments. The devil is in the detail at Black Bear Burger, and one hopes a permanent site will give them all the prep-room they need.

Monsieur Le Duck

Monsieur Le Duck is yet another victim of closure after its brief taste of bricks-and-mortar. The French-inspired eatery, which began life as a Spitalfields pop-up back in 2018, changed gears when it opened its first permanent site in Clerkenwell last May. Sadly, the joy was short-lived, and Monsieur Le Duck said au revoir to the restaurant shortly before Christmas. 

Founded by first-time restaurateur Richard Humphreys, the brand’s concept and flavours were originally inspired by the cuisine of Gascony. In its prime, the restaurant featured an array of duck-centric dishes, from confit duck burgers and duck steak baguettes, to confit duck croquettes with truffle mayo. French desserts and digestifs were also on hand to complete the continental theme. 

During its height, the site received rave reviews. The bistro furniture, wooden tables and brick walls all sustained a certain rustic ambience that charmed Londoners with its European nostalgia. While news of its closure was shared in an Instagram post last December, all hope is not lost, for the group says it is “busy looking for a new home”. 

Chuku’s

Brother and sister duo, Emeka and Ifeyinwa Frederick, made waves on the pop-up scene when they began cooking Nigerian-inspired cuisine from several locations around the capital. Their latest venture, Chuku’s, also began as a pop-up, and will be opening its first ever permanent site on Tottenham Court Road next week (13 February). 

The new site will continue to serve up authentic Nigerian fare, offering a range of traditional dishes as well as those with a “special Chuku’s twist”. It markets itself as the “world’s first” Nigerian tapas restaurant, and it’s fair to say that sibling duo have found quite the niche with this latest venture. 

Much like Black Bear Burger, Chuku’s turns upon a simple ethos: ‘Chop, Chat, Chill’. This laid-back manifesto will be bolstered by chilled afrobeats, contemporary Nigerian art, warm colours and warming food. The group says that all they ask is for guests to “kick back, relax and make yourself at home”, and the intimate 35-seat venue will certainly lend itself to a homely feel. 

Prairie Fire

Southern-inspired barbecue joint Prairie Fire spent seven years roaming the street food scene of London, slowly garnering a small but dedicated following for its authentic Missourian cuisine. Now, it has opened its first permanent site, just a stone’s throw from Westfield London in a bustling part of the capital. 

The premise was formed by Kansas City-native Michael Gratz who, after moving to London, “missed the artisanal smoked meats that Kansas City elevated to high art”. Having brought the all-American cuisine to London, his new menu includes authentic barbecued offerings, including 16-hour oak smoked brisket, 12-hour smoked ribs, hot dogs, pit beans and everything in between.  

Prior to its new permanent home, Prairie Fire previously traded at famed food hot spots such as KERB and Mercato Metropolitano. It most recently served a six-month residency at London Fields Brewery, so Gratz is no stranger to the restaurant-like operations of his first site. The BBQ joint is already receiving high praise from critics, and Gratz’ years of experience may mean it is here to stay for some time. 

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