How does one cook a four-course dinner for 35 people in a bike shop with no kitchen? To be honest, I don’t really know—but I do know that on Sunday night at Let’s Roast Cycles, chef Won Kim pulled it off admirably. Course after course made its way from the back of the shop, where paper-covered worktables were being used for plating dishes and mixing cocktails, to the front, where diners sat at folding tables tucked between rows of bikes that had been draped with strings of lights.
The event, called Schwinn Provisions, was a dinner party hosted by the new pop-up series Drop Leaf Dinners, dedicated to celebrating “accidentally iconic” places in Chicago—which cofounder Polly Nevins describes as places that aren’t famous, but “are meaningful to neighborhoods and to the community.” The first dinner in the series was an Asian-inspired meal at Flub A Dub Chub’s hot dog stand in Lakeview; Sunday’s dinner was built around Milwaukee Avenue, bike culture, and Schwinn’s manufacturing legacy in Chicago.
Nevins met Pete Ternes, her partner in Drop Leaf Dinners, at a pop-up dinner last fall where Ternes, co-owner of the local Middle Brow Beer Company, was serving suds. The two have been dating ever since, and talking about starting their own series of communal dinners for nearly that long. But while both work in the restaurant/bar industry—Nevins as a server at the Winchester and Stella Barra Pizzeria, Ternes as a sometime bartender at Corridor Brewing—neither is a chef. “We don’t have the talent ourselves,” Ternes says, “so we had to go find people who have the talent.”
The lineup of chefs and bartenders change at every Drop Leaf Dinner event. The hot-dog-stand meal featured Charles Welch, formerly of Sepia, who’ll be the chef at a yet-to-open West Loop restaurant concentrating on rotisserie meat and raw seafood; the bartender was Lindsay Betland of the Drifter and Heavy Feather. Won Kim, who’s cooked at many pop-up dinners and local restaurants, will helm the soon-to-open Kimski’s, a Korean-Polish restaurant at Maria’s Packaged Goods & Community Bar; Rory Toolan, also of Heavy Feather, was the bartender on Sunday.
When I walked into Let’s Roast Cycles that evening, Ternes handed me a champagne glass filled with a refreshingly tart cocktail of gin, cranberry shrub, and sparkling wine and introduced me to Tammy Owins, an attendee he’d been chatting with. Owins, a young retiree, has been going to pop-up and underground dinners in the city for ten years. At one of her first, in a Wicker Park apartment, the food was served cold because there were no cooking facilities. She now typically attends at least one underground dinner a month. She went to X-Marx before it morphed into the Logan Square brick-and-mortar restaurant Fat Rice, and the still extant Sunday Dinner Club, which spawned the restaurant Honey Butter Fried Chicken.
The terms “pop-up dinner” and “underground dinner” are often used interchangeably, but pop-ups are more likely to be at licensed restaurants (at times the place would normally be closed) and to feature chefs who are already established but may be between jobs or in the process of opening a new restaurant. Earlier this fall, for example, Ryan Poli (formerly of Tavernita) did a series of pop-ups at Jam in Logan Square. Underground dinners, on the other hand, are often run by little-known chefs hoping to open their own restaurants. Iliana Regan (Elizabeth) and Jake Bickelhaupt (42 Grams) both ran ambitious and highly praised underground dinners, consisting of a dozen or more courses, out of their respective apartments before opening their restaurants—both of which have been awarded Michelin stars (42 Grams has two).
Not all nonrestaurant dinners fall so neatly into one category, though, and while Drop Leaf Dinners calls itself a pop-up, it has certain elements more often associated with underground dinners—like cooking in a space not licensed as a restaurant. When I talked to Ternes before Sunday’s dinner, he said it would be a sort of experiment, since he and Nevins have their hearts set on hosting in other spaces without a kitchen. “Hopefully you just need water, electricity, and some counter space, and you can get away with a dinner,” he said. He seemed confident, noting that he and Nevins have been to dinners in a Laundromat, an art gallery, a furniture shop, a theater basement, and the salt flats of a salt lake.
Drop Leaf’s experiment seems to have worked. Despite the lack of a kitchen at Let’s Roast, all the food except the salad course was served hot. Or at least that was the idea—it was inevitable that trying to serve 35 plates simultaneously meant that some arrived to the table a little lukewarm, but no one seemed to mind. Butternut-squash-and-beer soup was prepared ahead of time and reheated in Crock-Pots; pork sausages (made that day by a friend of Kim’s at Whole Foods) were cooked on an enormous grill behind the shop that Ternes and Nevins rented for the evening; and dessert consisted of apples baked on the grill in the charcoal ashes and drizzled with bourbon-caramel sauce and cream. Accompanying the sausages in the main course were pretzels from Crumb, horseradish mustard, and sauerkraut kimchi—Kim’s only nod of the evening to the Korean food he typically cooks.
And while the food was impressive, especially considering the limitations under which Kim was preparing it, the cocktails were even better. A very decent Radler (made with Middle Brow’s farmhouse ale) accompanied the soup and salad (greens, shaved radishes, sherry vinaigrette, and duck prosciutto), but I preferred the apple-infused old-fashioned—until the arrival of the last cocktail, a combination of gin, Byrrh, Escorial, and bitters called Impossible Germany.
By this point in the evening we’d been there for slightly less than three hours, the event was scheduled to end soon, and the conversation at my table had turned to a sex-positive cafe one couple had visited. In the back, Nevins and Ternes were rinsing dishes in a horse trough that functions as the shop’s bike bathtub. But as Toolan was explaining the last cocktail, Ternes appeared, announcing that while dinner was over, the event wasn’t; he was bringing out a cooler of cheap beer for those who wanted to stay and mingle.
That sense of camaraderie is a large part of the reason people like underground dinners. “People have to feel like they’ve gone to a nice restaurant, gotten their money’s worth,” Ternes says. “But it has to be more communal, like it’s one big party of 30.” I did, in fact, get to talk to all seven of the other people at my table: a group of friends who were all very interested in Chicago’s food scene, the owner of Let’s Roast Cycles and his wife, and Owins, the underground-dining devotee I’d met when I arrived. While Owins told me she enjoys meeting new people, she also likes hearing from the chefs—at most dinners, Drop Leaf included, they’ll come out to explain each course.
Keeping Drop Leaf’s dinners affordable is high on the list of priorities, Nevins says. “The people who come and meet each other, we want to come from all walks of life, be in different jobs.” (I’d consider Sunday’s dinner, at $40 for four courses with cocktail pairings, one of the best values I’ve gotten for my money in while.) She and Ternes have lost money on the first couple of dinners, she says, but they’ve also been buying plates, flatware, glasses, and other tools they’ll need for future events. So far the chefs and bartenders they’ve worked with have volunteered their time, and Drop Leaf has relied on social media rather than paid ads to get the word out. That seems to be working just fine: the first two dinners sold out, and two of the people at my table found out about Drop Leaf through Instagram.
If the dinners continue to go well, Nevins and Ternes plan to use any profits to start a brick-and-mortar restaurant inspired by Houston’s Cafe Momentum, which employs at-risk youth in order to teach them marketable skills. A friend of Ternes is a social worker who’s interested in the project, and through the pop-up dinners they’re hoping to meet a chef who’d want to work at the restaurant and maybe even gain investors. In the meantime they’ve got their sights set on one of Chicago’s abandoned theaters for an upcoming dinner.