Your Place or Mine?

Words by
Margaret Eby
Images by
Ashley Gellman

Inside the world of homespun pop-ups and unexpected collaborations that have made Philly’s dining scene like nowhere else.

All photos: Liz Grothe hosts a recent Couch Cafe.

It’s a rainy Tuesday night in winter, and Liz Grothe is getting ready to serve 18 strangers a seven-course Italian dinner in her living room. This is not unusual for Grothe—in fact, she’ll be serving this same menu another eight times in the next two weeks. She posts a link to tickets on her Instagram stories, and guests who want to come snap up a spot via a Google survey sheet and a Venmo payment. In the two years since Grothe started her at-home dinner party series, called Couch Cafe, it has morphed from a quiet little experiment into one of the hottest dining experiences in Philadelphia—tickets sell out within an hour of Grothe’s post. “It’s been totally wild,” she says.

Grothe launched Couch Cafe as a way to experiment with cooking ideas on her days off from cooking on the line at restaurants. (Most recently, Grothe was the sous chef at Marc Vetri’s pasta bar Fiorella.) At restaurants, consistency is key—you’re making the same menu repeatedly. Even at a place where the menu changes frequently, the theme usually doesn’t—a Spanish restaurant usually doesn’t turn into a Greek one overnight. At Couch Cafe, Grothe can shift themes from one dinner to the next with ease, letting her enthusiasm and her curiosity guide her. Last fall, for instance, she went on a six-week trip to Italy; since then, her Couch Cafes have been themed around different Italian cities and what she learned from the cuisines—tonight is Rome, and the next will be Florence. (She plans to finish her tour with a dinner celebrating the Italian chain of her youth: Olive Garden.) Since she left her job at Fiorella, last November, Couch Cafe has become Grothe’s largest source of income. She usually employs a friend or former coworker to help with service, and pays them out of the Venmo fund, keeping the rest of the profit.

“Couch Cafe is for fun, but it’s always been me playing restaurant simulator,” Grothe says, explaining how it’s a way for her to work through ideas for a potential future restaurant. “It’s a dinner party series. But it’s also building my name up, meeting people who can help me raise money to buy a restaurant.”

Pop-ups like Grothe’s Couch Cafe have long been at the heart of Philadelphia’s semi-underground dining scene—an extension of the city’s bootstraps ethos, a reflection of its fierce community, and an ad hoc incubator of plenty of its celebrated brick-and-mortar restaurants. Chefs working out a concept who don’t have a formal restaurant will invite people into their homes for intimate dinners; for others, it’s a way to collaborate and introduce themselves to different audiences. Her Place Supper Club, run by the James Beard-nominated chef Amanda Shulman, grew out of the dinner parties that she would host in her apartment, for example.

Following her latest Couch Cafe offering, Grothe has plans to do a pop-up homage to the steakhouse chain Western Sizzlin’ at High Street, a storied modern American restaurant in Old City. That collaboration won’t earn her any money—her share of the profits will be donated to a charity of her choice—but it will introduce her name and her style of cooking to a different set of diners. That’s a common motivation for pop-ups and collaborations: even if they don’t make money immediately, they can be mutually beneficial for the chefs as a way of cross-pollinating fandoms. The restaurant and the pop-up chef will both promote the dinner on various channels—Instagram, Facebook, and via email blasts.

Kiki Aranita, a chef and food writer, frequently does pop-ups to support her line of Poi Dog sauces. The finances of each vary wildly, but it’s rare that it’s extremely profitable. Sometimes pop-ups can go disastrously wrong, when the staff isn’t clued in to the details of the new menu, for example, or when the parties aren’t clear on who is supplying what materials. When it goes right, the benefit, she says, is getting more eyes on your work. “Expanding the customer base is the primary reason for a pop-up,” Aranita says. It’s also a nice way to introduce the cooks working at a restaurant to another cuisine, or another style of cooking. “You have a whole team of younger cooks, and you can’t necessarily afford to send them to Hawaii,” Aranita notes. “But you can bring in a chef who cooks Hawaiian food, instead.” Aranita mentioned the Malaysian chef Ange Branca of Kampar. “Ange was always being asked to pop up because no one else was making Malaysian like her,” Aranita explains. “You’re gonna learn so much more if you invite her into your kitchen, versus just eating at her restaurant. It’s such a more enriching experience.”

If sometimes it’s about working out a concept that might one day be a restaurant, at other times it’s the opposite—a fun idea that would only ever make sense as a one-off, like the delightful Jewish-Hawaiian dinner party Aranita and her husband chef Ari Miller once threw over the course of two days, dubbed Hanukkalikimaka. In November 2023, My Loup, the French-Canadian inspired restaurant, hosted a similar pop-up with El Chingon chef Carlos Aparicio, who specializes in Mexican food from Puebla, where diners feasted on dishes like birria bourguignon and escargot sourdough cemitas.

Often, though, it’s just about friendship. Grothe has hosted other up-and-coming chefs without their own formal spaces in her apartment—to give them an opportunity to flaunt their fare, of course, but mainly so they can work together in a fun, relaxed environment. “The money stuff is less fun, but it’s reality. What’s fun is when you hit it off with another chef, and are like ‘Hell yeah, let’s make some pasta together,’” Grothe says. “It’s punk rock. It’s scrappy.”

In 2023, Grothe hosted the chefs behind Paffuto, a three-person collaboration that focuses on Italian cuisine, several times at Couch Cafe. They split the menu, shared the profits, had a blast. By the end of the year, Paffuto had launched as a cafe in Bella Vista—the latest brick-and-mortar that germinated first in Philly’s pop-up circuit. Grothe is thrilled for them. “We’re like these neighborhood kids, and all of us want this video game, but none of us have $20 to buy the game,” she says. “When someone gets that $20? It’s a party.”

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