When it's time to look back at Kansas City's restaurant business in 2011, one of the most interesting innovations on the year-end list will be Vagabond, the pop-up restaurant conceived by chef Alex Pope — formerly of R Bar — and local writer and foodie Jenny Vergara. The first Vagabond, part restaurant and part art installation, ran five nights last month inside a former restaurant at 1815 Grand. (The venue is now used as a private event space.)
Was it profitable? Yes, say Vergara and Pope. The pop-up restaurant served 435 guests during the five-day, two-seating-per-night event. Each dinner was priced at $75 and included a seven-course meal with wine, tax and gratuity included. The dining experience was reservation-only, but on two occasions, unexpected guests wandered through the door.
The first time, a father and his 14-year-old son walked in ("Wearing tennis shorts," Vergara says), not quite understanding the prix fixe supper concept. They left. Another night, two patrons from Balanca's nightclub next door stepped in to see what was going on: "They thought it might be a new club," Pope says.
It's new, all right. Kansas City has had a couple of restaurants that lasted ever so briefly over the years, but Vagabond had an intentionally brief life span, more like a play than a restaurant. Each night that Vagabond was open, Pope and the staff put on a culinary performance that required near-perfect timing (each course was served at once, banquet-style) and a 30-minute intermezzo between the first seating, held each night at 5:30 p.m., and the second seating.
Pope and Vergara learned a lot in those five days. For one, Vergara realized on the first night that her plan to rent just enough linen napkins and tablecloths for one night — she planned to wash and press the linens herself each night — was ridiculous. "I came home the first night utterly exhausted with a huge bag of laundry. And at 4 a.m., I thought to myself: Oh, no, I just can't do this. Even though I had gone out and bought a new steamer."
Vergara got on the phone the next morning and rented enough fresh linens to last a week.
Pope learned right away that the stylish cheese plate he had planned for the sixth course of the night was simply too labor-intensive. "By the time it came to put together those plates," Pope says, "we had already created 300 plates. We were all exhausted.
"There were a few minor tweaks," he continues, "but mostly, it turned out to be a very fun, very satisfying event."
Vergara is best-known for her ultra-exclusive, chef-driven Test Kitchen dinners, held monthly at different venues around town. "Test Kitchen is more like a dinner party," she says. "It's a communal table with no more than 22 diners. Vagabond is much more like a real restaurant."
A real restaurant with one set menu, although Pope made accommodations for the four diners with food allergies, including, he says, "Two people allergic to nuts and one lady who hated the texture of flaked coconut." (The latter turned out to be a non-issue; Pope was using coconut milk.)
"It would be nice to have more than 30 minutes to turn the restaurant around for the next seating," Vergara says. She adds that people were waiting outside the building while she and the serving staff cleaned and reset the tables for the next group. For the next Vagabond event, in October, Pope and Vergara hope to find a space large enough to have a gathering space or anteroom, so that the second-seating patrons can sit and relax while the dining area is being readied.
Pope says he hopes the second Vagabond pop-up will be held the first week in October, but no venue has been rented yet, no menu planned. Since leaving his position as executive chef at the R Bar in June, Pope has been looking for investors willing to back a new restaurant for him. Meanwhile, Vagabond has proved to be both lucrative and a great educational opportunity. Asked if he would take a position with a currently operating restaurant, Pope says, "I would never turn down the right opportunity, but I'm not sure what that would be."
In the meantime, Vagabond is, as Vergara calls it, "a grand experiment."
"There were stressful moments, like in any restaurant," Pope says, "but really, it turned out to be a lot of fun."