What is a restaurant? Apologies for the very middle-school opener, but this year I’ve found that my previously solid conviction that a restaurant is “a place where people cook a menu they’ve created for customers who pay to eat their food” has been challenged. And that’s because it seems I hear almost every week about a restaurant that is temporarily turning into a different restaurant.
These shifts come in the form of collaborations, partnerships, residencies, and pop-ups — ways for two chefs to experiment together, for one restaurant to bring their presence to another city, or for new chefs to get their foot in the door. And while they’ve existed for years, it feels like they hit peak saturation in 2023. Collabs became the ultimate flex, a way to show that you’re not only in demand but also tapped into the larger community, that you want to both experiment with like-minded people and support others in the restaurant industry. You’re popular, and you want to use your popularity for good. But as any popular kid knows, there’s always pressure to stay relevant. Who are you if you’re not collabing?
Name a hot restaurant and I bet they’ve done a collab: Funke and Badmaash, Kasama and Ursula (and Atoboy), Place des Fêtes and Oxomoco, Her Place Supper Club and Lord’s, Masala y Maiz at Bar Sotano, Astral and Sunrice, and Taqueria Ramirez and Salsa Pizzeria. Abaca has a whole series hosting guest chefs, and Bar Chelou just had their first collab with Needle. And it’s not just newer restaurants. LA Thai institution Jitlada is teaming up with Prime for Thai pizzas. Peter Luger Steak House collabed with Mimi Cheng’s on steak-stuffed bao. As I was writing this list, perennial favorite Lucali partnered for a night with pop-up Zaza Lasagna, and Philly’s Meetinghouse hosted Yellow Rose.
Steve Wong, partner at Brooklyn’s Place des Fêtes and Oxalis, traces the current boom in collaborations back to the effects of the pandemic in 2020, when restaurants were trying to figure out how to stay afloat.
“It was just a very flexible time,” he says, with restaurants pivoting to takeout, temporary projects, basically anything to pay the bills. A spirit of camaraderie formed, with everyone banding together to support each other and the industry. And as restaurants began to reopen, many realized that these sorts of quick collaborations and partnerships did not need the amount of effort they did before the pandemic, when Wong says it looked a lot more like restaurant wars on Top Chef, creating a whole new experience out of scratch. They’d even bring in their own plates.
Now, it’s clear that collaboration is both easier to execute and something diners want. And without the singular focus of just keeping a restaurant open, chefs can spread their creative wings a little more. At Place des Fêtes, collabs require about a month of advance work, since reservations are released 30 days ahead, Wong says. But because it’s a more casual restaurant, that doesn’t mean completely changing how the team works.
“[The visiting chef’s] team will do a set of specials of savory dishes and desserts on top of our regular menu,” he says. “We’ll keep running how we run, but we’ll take a few items off our menu, depending on how many items they put together.”
At Oxalis, with its slightly more fine dining vibe, the two teams are more likely to split the menu 50/50 for a true fusion of styles, like at a recent collab with D.C.’s Reverie that featured a scallop tart with sake lees and sourdough ice cream with beer and banana caramel. Either way, the “home” restaurant helps prep, everyone cooks together, and everyone gets paid.
One benefit of coproductions like these is a warm, fuzzy sense of community and experimentation between restaurant teams.
“I think people are really like, ‘Okay, I need something that’s going to be creatively inspiring to me and my team, I want to feel like part of this bigger restaurant community,’” says Lilli Sherman, founder of OMA, a marketing events company that focuses on food brands and restaurants.
It seems like a win all around. Teams get to work together and learn from each other, perhaps cooking food or utilizing techniques they don’t use with the menu they work with every day, with all the resources of a full restaurant. And diners get an opportunity to try food from chefs who may be new to them.
But, of course, collaborations wouldn’t be trending so hard right now if they weren’t also good for business. Sherman sees the primary benefit as organic buzz-building. “If you got a New York Times review, it used to be 10 years ago [that] you would be flooded,” Sherman says. “You were set at least for a few months. And that really isn’t the case anymore.” If you’re collaborating, essentially you’re always new.
We can speculate as to why there might be a shorter attention span — a plethora of competition, tighter wallets, social media messing with our memories — but ultimately, operators are finding that if you’re not changing, you’re dying. This is why Sherman has recommended these sorts of collaborations to her clients. By offering a one-night or one-week only collaboration, both restaurants get to enjoy a spotlight that doesn’t tend to favor those that have been open for a few years already. The “visiting” team gets to interact with a new neighborhood or city, the “home” team gets to offer something different for a time, and both get to attract new diners who will hopefully become repeat customers — or at least become invested in attending more of these events, wanting to eat something that will exist for only one night. “Both restaurants really benefit just to be kept top of mind,” says Sherman.
That’s not to say that wanting to stay creative and wanting to maintain a relevant brand are entirely separate endeavors. “I think being engaged on a regular basis with these pop-ups is another way for us to stay engaged with our own work,” says Wong. Plus, collaborations are “a good culture builder … It can be very exciting to see all the different foods and different approaches to doing things.”
It’s fun! That’s the whole point. And in a way, each goal supports the other. Announcing a collaboration with another hot restaurant is a way to flex your power, to say that you are both beloved by your community and in demand. Which means you may have the opportunity to spread the love, as Wong notes, to partnerships that may not be a huge marketing benefit but that allow you to work with restaurants that just do what you like. You’re fostering either good relationships, good attention, or both.
At what point, though, do collaborations stop being coveted reservations and just become The Way Things Work?
“I think anytime that a restaurant is trying to do this, you want to be careful with that saturation point,” says Sherman. “Are people still excited about this if it’s happening all the time?”
It feels like we neared that point in 2023. Change has become the norm, and actually trying to attend these collaborations is sometimes more of a hassle than a joy. The limelight of the new was replaced with the limelight of the novel, yet both fade in time. But at least this year, that warmth was shared.