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From farm tables to city lots, it's a new scene in dining











Pop-up dinners are earning their name in Pittsburgh with new eating adventures springing up all over the city and farms beyond, many continuing into fall.  The smorgasbord of dinners takes the familiar experience of dining out and transforms it into something fresh  by returning to the roots of community eating. Over good food and wine, these creative dinners offer adventures for the palate while returning food to its rightful place: a reason to sit down together with strangers and friends. Food is fuel, but served at a Pittsburgh pop-up dinner it enables something even greater: community-building.

Six x Ate:
Local artist Casey Droege believes in structure: having been raised by two artists and a mime left Droege with a hankering for rules that manifests itself in every project she undertakes. In the case of her ongoing dinner series, Six x Ate, Droege’s “rules” dictate that six artists give a five-minute presentation. Beyond that, anything goes.

Six x Ate gathers 20 to 30 artists, thinkers, and others inside a restaurant or an art space for interdisciplinary conversation on a theme. In 2012 the free dinner series sizzled on topics such as Space, Time, and Sound, while 2013 featured one called Vegetable and Venial. The evening is fueled by presentations that range from dance performances to slideshows.

Both talks and refreshments follow the theme—for example, August’s “Venial” event at Franktuary featured a performance entitled “Adam and Eve,” with cocktails such as The Broken Testament.

 “I want to create the kind of cultural landscape that I want to live in,” says Droege. For her that meant filling the gap in Pittsburgh’s artistic middle ground. What Droege wanted was neither a university nor artistic foundation—which Pittsburgh has in spades—but a contemporary arts network and simply, “more ways to exist as an artist.”

The third and final Six x Ate dinner for the year will take place in October and explore the theme “Vestibule.” Look for date and details on Droege’s Facebook page. After that, Droege thinks she’ll take dinner to go: she has plans to create cultural exchanges by hosting dinners in other cities.

Around the World:
https://www.facebook.com/zestwishes
After many years spent cooking in other people’s kitchens, chef Mya Zeronis was ready to strike out on her own so she opened Zest Wishes, a juice stand and specialty grocery store in Pittsburgh Public Market. Having her own storefront enabled Zeronis to pursue an idea she’d had for a long time: create a pop-up dinner series that focused on globally-minded healthy food. Zeronis was thrilled when market management greenlighted her Around the World dinner series, hosted each month at Zest Wishes.

Gathered at one long table, 14 guests indulge in Zeronis’s vegan, dairy-free, gluten-free, non-GMO dishes (there are non-vegan options, as well). Dinners are BYOB for those over 21, and the intimate size of the dinners allows for a share and share-alike atmosphere that lends itself to good conversation.

Over four courses Zeronis flexes her creative muscles, serving contemporary American cuisine that draws inspiration from across the globe. In August diners traveled to Spain and India, enjoying multi-color tomato gazpacho and vegan falooda. September’s guests will taste Louisiana, South America, and Asia flavors with Cajun tofu bites and lemongrass tomato basil curry.

Each $40 dinner includes a workshop that helps diners sharpen their own culinary skills. This month’s dinner on Friday, September 27, spotlights the utility of the mortar and pestle, one of the food world’s classic dynamic duos. Guests will crunch lemongrass for tea and whip up fresh guacamole.

“There are many pop-up dinners,” Zeronis says, “but I don’t think any of those have been geared toward the health-minded population.”

The Farmer’s Table:
Poet Robert Frost famously said that writing verse without a rhyme scheme was like playing tennis without a net; too easy. Chef Jacob Mains is Frost’s culinary equivalent.

Proprietor of The Farmer’s Table dinner series, Mains offers dinners on six area farms. He seeks to connect his guests to the region by serving dishes prepared almost entirely from the farm where they’re dining. “I want to be as close to local and sustainable as possible,” Mains said, “I want to create a modern Pennsylvania cuisine.”

For each $90-$100 dinner, Mains sets up linen-covered tables in the open air and dresses them with creative flower arrangements. Anywhere from 35 to 70 guests mingle over hors d’oeuvres before sitting down for five courses and shared BYOB wine. Charcuterie, just-picked salad greens, and even wood-fired pizzas have found their way onto Mains’ table this year. Guests are encouraged to chat with the farmers and chefs throughout the night to learn more about their food and each other.

“People don’t go out to restaurants and get to socialize anymore,” says Mains. “It’s amazing at these dinners to see people who didn’t know each other before talking together, sharing wine, smiling the whole time. It’s just wild. You’d think everyone came together.”

Still in his first season, Mains has crafted six dinners. The last farm dinner will take place on Saturday, September 21 at Blackberry Meadows Farm. Tickets are also available for a farm-to-table event in Aspinwall on Satuday, October 5.  

Urban Supper:
EatPGH is a labor of love, according to Laura Zorch—a love of eating. Zorch is one of four ladies who joined forces in 2009 to chronicle the twists and turns of Pittsburgh’s food scene on their blog, eatPGH. While the blog has inspired a loyal following, the crew wanted to create more events that would engage their readers face to face. Teaming up with the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, chefs Keith Fuller of Root 174, and Rick DeSchantz of Meat and Potatoes, eatPGH hosted a pop-up dinner called Urban Supper on Saturday, September 14.

The first in what will likely be a series, the $125 dinner consisted of seven courses, jumping from fried chicken to smoked shrimp and featuring seasonal produce such as sweet corn and heirloom tomatoes. The courses were paired with craft cocktails and beer from Rivertowne.

Urban Supper took place in a parking lot at the juncture of Seventh and Liberty Avenues downtown with one long table running inbetween two buildings. Chefs Fuller and DeSchantz had a smoker going full blast and onversation swelled to a rollicking height amidst the din of traffic.  

“That’s what we wanted,” says Zorch, “we wanted you to be immersed in the atmosphere and excitement of downtown. How often do you get to stop and just take it all in?”

Dinfinity:
Dinfinity sees your cozy gathering of strangers over a shared meal and raises you a cause. Founded by Adam Causgrove as an extention of his local nonprofit, Side Project, Dinfinity is a dinner series of limitless possibilities. “No two dinners will ever be the same,” says Causgrove. The idea is simple: invite 8 to 12 interesting people who don’t know one another to dinner—at a restaurant, for a picnic, in your home—and see what happens.

The first, then unnamed, Dinfinity dinner was held in March at Union Pig and Chicken. Causgrove had some friends he thought should know one another, but wanted to create lasting connections that moved beyond the networking principle of meeting people based on their main line of work.

“Meeting over food and drinks is a comfortable, familiar setting,” says Causgrove. “And the goal has been to develop more of a social relationship.”

Each attendee from that original dinner agreed to host a dinner of their own with new guests. Kate Stoltzus, of Plumb Media, designed a “Kates” dinner that invited other Pittsburgh Kates, Katies, and Katherines, and referenced still more Kates from popular culture and history.

Each Dinfinity dinner asks guests to donate one dollar to the Dinfinity pot with the proceeds will going to a charity in June 2014. How much is raised depends on how many dinners are hosted within the next year. As long as hosts continue to reach out to new guests, Dinfinity has a promise of exponential grassroots growth.

“There are so many people doing so many awesome things in this city that it’s hard to keep up,” says Causgrove, “let alone get to know the people doing them.” What Dinfinity offers, Causgrove says, is an excuse and a means of exploring the city’s vast social capital.

Churchview Summer Farm Dinners:
On her third generation family “farmette,” Churchview Farm owner Tara Rockacy showcases the glory of farm-fresh produce. Rockacy is dedicated to farm education and has an open door policy that invites community members to assist with farm activities. Her dinner series is meant to help bridge the divide between farmers and consumers.

For $85, gratuity included, 24 guests enjoy a one-of-a-kind menu created by a local chef that also offers wine pairings. Rockacy built a pavilion on the farm to host this summer’s dinners, an open space where guests can enjoy views of the farm and, as her website notes, “visits from some of our free-ranging chickens.”

Diners will enjoy produce from the farm as well as meats sourced by Wild Purveyors, a Pittsburgh wholesaler of wild and organic products.

With nine dinners already under her belt this summer, Rockacy added two more dinners to the calendar for September 22 and 29 that have already sold out.

Off-the-Grid Sunday Suppers:
Sundays are normally a slow day for restaurants. But where many people might see a good evening to dine in, Kate Freed and Jack Brice see an opportunity. The pair are the creators of Off-the-Grid Sunday Suppers, a dinner series that typically closes a restaurant on a Sunday evening—with the blessing of its owners, of course—and hosts a sumptuous dinner five-course dinner with five wine pairings.   

Since 2009 the pair has crafted more than 25 multi-course meals accompanied by Brice’s intensely researched wine pairings. Their emphasis on local fare was initially inspired by Freed’s time spent in South Africa. After moving back stateside she continued to educate her palate, working in several fine-dining restaurants.

Each dinner, usually around $80, features a different emphasis, such as August’s focus on Women Winemakers meal or September’s sold-out Stroll the Strip.
 
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