If you're tired of traditional restaurant environments, consider trying supper clubs and pop-up dining. They provide an entertaining, affordable option with a personal feel.
Some are run by accomplished chefs looking for creative freedom, others are led by keen home cooks with a passion for sharing the food they make. We take a look at what's on offer in Auckland.
Gourmet A Gogo
Living's food writer, Grant Allen and his business partner Jonathan Lousich were among the first in New Zealand to create a pop-up dining experience, an offshoot of Grant's catering business, Cook.
"It's like one big dinner party where you sit at a long table next to people you don't know," explains Grant, whose events have combined fine dining and entertainment in locations as varied as a film studio, a historic house, an antiques warehouse, a hairdressing salon and a Christmas knick-knack shop, complete with a drag queen singing carols.
"We're about good food and the experience, rather than chefs showing off," says Grant.
"We keep to a tight price point so people know how much they will spend before heading out."
"We create a theme for each event with an element of surprise in the entertainment," says Grant, who now has a warehouse kitchen space as a permanent pop-up dining home.
"It will be more straightforward than trucking a restaurant around town," he says.
He is also planning a comedy club dinner story where an actor and chef will become part of the entertainment.
"It's a tough economy for established restaurant businesses in the competitive Auckland market, so we've decided to create a buzz or story around our food business with events rather than traditional restaurant dining," says Grant.
Delaney Mes' blog, Heartbreak Pie, began as therapy after a break-up, but it's managed to help her achieve a lot more in the process. She's now a food blogger, magazine columnist, pop-up dining event organiser, as well as being a lawyer.
"I kept finding myself in BYO restaurants paying around $30 for a forgettable Thai or Indian meal," says Delaney. "I thought, if everyone gave me that money I could do something really interesting and different for them."
She read about underground supper clubs and pop-up dining in London, New York and LA, deciding she could do something that was a cross between a dinner party and a restaurant experience.
"I love dinner parties but don't have a beautiful home to host them, so I'm trying to find the right mixture in a venue," says Delaney, whose last event was in a friend's backyard, transformed with fairy lights and themed table settings, flowers and colourful lanterns.
Her cooking style is "simple, home-cooked food done well," using seasonal ingredients.
She's also keen to collaborate with different chefs this year, as well as doing a pop-up dining tour around New Zealand.
"I was amazed when I started my blog that people were interested in what I had to say, but now I feel just as qualified as a journalist who writes about food," says Delaney. "I do get taken just as seriously now and am hoping to make a business out of it."
Follow Delaney's blog at heartbreakpie.com for details of new events.
Egg & Spoon
Daniel Pearson's Egg & Spoon pop-up dining restaurant took almost six years of planning. He had worked his way up from burger vans to the Michelin-starred Foliage at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in London, and returned to New Zealand to be head chef at Bracu Restaurant in Auckland's Bombay Hills.
"Egg & Spoon is about trying to give myself an identity," says Dan, whose end goal is finding a permanent location for his restaurant. "It doesn't have to be all about ego, though, we did a three-course meal out of The White Lady, a fast food bus in the CBD. We don't want to take ourselves too seriously."
"Pop-up dining tests a chef's skill," says Dan. "From basic challenges like where the hot spots are on the cooker to working out of a kitchen you don't know, you face the same pressure as in a fast-paced restaurant you've worked at for a year."
Dan's presentation is beautiful, a work of art as well as science, and his classic flavour combinations are showcased at his pop-up events ranging from formal to playful. They've included a celebration of slow food at a Grey Lynn coffee lounge and a night at The Wine Cellar with music from a calypso-blues musician.
"It's a really good buzz and I thrive on the pressure, it's an obsession for me," says Dan.
"It will pay off in the long run."
Keep an eye on eggandspoonrestaurant.com for upcoming events. The next is at Monterey Coffee Lounge in Grey Lynn on March 30 at 7pm. There will be three courses plus a beverage on arrival. The night is themed around craft beers and barbecue.
Tin Roof Dinners
Erin Fae, home cook and founder of community art space and gallery Alphabet City, had been to a couple of supper clubs in New York before deciding to create Tin Roof Dinners in the Auckland CBD.
"We can hold one anywhere - an office building, small tents in a park, cafes normally closed for the evening. It's an underground movement so you don't need to find a commercial kitchen," says Erin, who cooks high-end vegetarian meals.
"Last year, I rented out an office space for the evening and had my first supper club," says Erin. "It all looked exactly like it did in my head. That was really satisfying - I had complete artistic control."
The menu, printed on letterpress, included Saffron Quinoa and Avocado Salsa, Curry-Crusted Tempeh with Pomegranate Sauce and Coconut Panna Cotta with Sesame-Laced Biscuits.
"It's a chance to do fun things normally not available at a restaurant. It's also about community-building," says Erin, who admits, "The hardest thing was doing the dishes."
She encourages others to follow in her footsteps, adding: "Anyone can do it, anyone can have a version of this experience. You don't have to have had a lot of training or background in cooking. If you think your food is something that you want to share, you can make it happen."
The next event is early autumn, check tinroofdinners.tumblr.com for details.
By far the most prolific provider of off-the-cuff dining experiences is Pop Up Dining, run by Ben Barton. Ben studied economics but fell into the creative outlet of cooking, as well as the lifestyle it led him to in Wanaka, London, the Alps in Europe and onboard luxury yachts.
Ben admits he became a bit jaded and returned to Auckland for "a more settled existence. Cooking high-end stuff turned more into a theatrical performance, it seemed absurd and I wanted to cook simple, real food.
"At top end restaurants in New York, cooking is an art form, but no one can eat like that every day," says Ben. "I want to make good food accessible to people. You don't need the white tablecloths or to call a meeting in the kitchen every time a fork has been dropped."
I visit a Pop Up Dining event at Crave Cafe in Morningside, run by a collective with profits going back into the community. Diner Joanne Harland explains the concept of the menu, based on Michael Pollan's ethical eating mantra. It's essentially about using meat as a flavouring with 80 per cent of the meal made up of plant-based foods.
"Apparently, if you buy a green plate it will encourage you to eat more of your greens," says Joanne, who is an early adopter for food trends and heard about the Pop Up Dining event on a social enterprise website.
"Tonight you get two buzz words at once - pop up dining and social enterprise - welcome to the future," says fellow diner Bennett McElwee, as he happily picks a smoked mussel skewered by a celery stick out of his tomato soup.
"I grew up in a meat worker's family," says Grant Abbott, after more courses including a Chickpea and Chorizo Falafel and a No Tuna Nicoise. "But this tastes as satisfying as any meal with a big meat component."
It's an educational experience for the diners I met and good use of the cafe normally closed in the evening.
"There's plenty of space out there for pop-up dining ventures," says Ben. "It's a way for the property owners to test the water for evening dining and a chance for chefs to get away from the constraints of having to make money straight away. We're not trying to make a fortune, just have some fun."
Pop Up Dining's next event is Modern Asian Pig on March 15 from 7-10pm at Crave Cafe, 24 McDonald St, Morningside. Tickets $50, BYO, book at popdining.com. Also try their $10 Cheap Eats @ D.O.C bar on K Rd every second Wednesday.