Fressen & Essen - The allure of pop-up and underground dining

April 8, 2013

Photography: Carina Lau 

From fresson to essen

Leon Kass (1994), who explored the natural and cultural act of eating in his book The Hungry Soul, eloquently noted that the role of food has moved from fressen (feeding) to essen (eating). This transformation from ‘food for the body’ to ‘food for the soul’ means that mealtimes are no longer just occasions for nourishment; they are fertile cultural sites for socialisation and personal development (for example demonstrating adventurousness or openness) (Ochs & Shohet, 2006).

Does essen still hold true in our busy lives?

Kass’ observation no doubt holds true (in much of Western society), but has the balance tilted back from essen to fressen in recent times? The time pressures of our modern way of living means we are increasingly placing a greater value on our leisure time, and we do not want to spend our free time interacting with (that is, shopping for or cooking) food. We have found a myriad of ways of streamlining food production for efficiency gains, as well as maximising instant gratification. A major result of this streamlining process is fast food culture, to which much of the developed world (including Australia) has succumbed.

“[In the downturn> we continued to eat out, but we traded down…The big winners since 2009 have been fast-food chains, the lower end of the restaurant market and clubs. That's different to New Zealand, say, where they simply stopped eating out.''

Seeing chains and fast food as the quick and affordable way to chow down, Australians traded a sophisticated palate for limited menus and service.

Unsurprisingly, this prolonged period of one-dimensional ‘one stop shop’ fast food culture has left our palates a little bland.

The search for novelty and commensality renewed

Perhaps as a reaction against the fast food culture, Aussies are showing a renewed sense of adventure in their mealtimes, by eagerly partaking in pop-up and underground dining experiences.

Photo: Shop House Ramen pop up by Kristoffer Paulsen

Though prevalent in Europe for much of the past decade, pop-up restaurants have just begun to gain traction in Australia in the last couple of years. These restaurants literally pop up over night and stay for a few days or weeks then disappear as quickly as they appeared. 

While offering only a small window of opportunity in which to taste their wares, site-specific, short-term eateries serve more than just novelty. They often offer fresh seasonal produce, and use space in a transformational way to create unique dining experiences for those who are quick enough to get in while the going's good.

Upping the ante in exclusivity are underground dining experiences, which have also taken off in the last couple of years. 

Take for example, Decadence, an event recently hosted by Underground Cinema and Secret Foodies in South Melbourne. Diners were led down to a church, greeted by a priest and sucked into an impeccably recreated French village for a liberal sluicing with Champagne and canapés. There was a gypsy band playing, and random ‘happenings’ where actors played out snippets of movie scenes, while diners had a full sit-down meal orchestrated to match the movie (think eating chicken in chocolate sauce in time with Judi Dench) (Time Out's review, 2013).

Organisations like Secret Dining Society (Melbourne), Transient Diner and Secret Foodies (Sydney) hold covert, coveted and exclusive dinner parties at surprise venues. Diners are then taken on a food journey with the chef, learning about the philosophy and passion behind their meal.

And sitting in the middle, balancing the enticing menus of pop up restaurants and the extreme exclusivity of underground dining – all the while maintaining an intriguing atmosphere – are food trucks.

They create a real community feel as they pull up in parks and public spaces, and give patrons the thrill of the chase as they follow the trucks on Twitter or Facebook, wondering where they'll pop up tonight. 

A lasting trend?

[img>The allure of the unknown provided by pop-up restaurants, food trucks and underground dining is a major drawcard. They also provide a place for commensality – the practice of sharing food and eating together in a social group – a vital social practice which has decreased considerably over the years.

"Sharing and eating the same dishes provides a sense of communion and encourages discussion between people who may never have met otherwise… It's a shared experience."

Michael Fantuz, Founder of underground network Table for 20

It seems the trend towards the temporal, and our revitalised palate, has made the perfect recipe for these nomadic culinary adventures. These experiences encourage both adventurousness and togetherness (at least for a limited space of time), which is in stark difference to wolfing down a meal at a chain restaurant. It’s a certain sign that we still indulge the essen eating experience, letting food nourish not just the body.

As these trends hit the mainstream, we can expect a proliferation of such not-so-secret gastronomical societies in the short term, and perhaps even a more commercial move to more intimate, private or bespoke experiences in mainstream restaurants.



Kass, L. (1994). The Hungry Soul: Eating and Perfecting of Our Nature.

Ochs, E., and Shohet, M. (2006). The Cultural Structuring of Mealtime Socialisation, Wiley Interscience, 111.