'Pop-Up' Restaurant LudoBites Hit Of Los Angeles

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Celebrity Chef Ludo Lefebvre has launched a new dining phenomenon in Los Angeles called "pop-up dining." It's kind of the culinary equivalent of a rave. Every couple of months, Levebvre sets up shop at a new restaurant or diner and temporarily transforms it into a gourmet dining experience. It's called LudoBites and it's become a raging success.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Here in the Los Angeles area, one of the toughest dinner reservations to snag, to get this summer is at a tiny cafe in a dingy corner of the city's downtown fashion district. And despite its popularity, this restaurant will shut down in a few weeks, that's because LudoBites is what's known as a pop-up restaurant.

From member station KPCC, Alex Cohen has more.

ALEX COHEN: Okay, I'm going to try. What is this one?

Mr. MAX COANE: Go for that one, because it's so stinky and runny and French, you can't go wrong.

COHEN: Each week night, a sandwich shop with just 12 tables is transformed into a high-end restaurant. On tonight's menu, dishes like confit pork belly with mustard ice cream and cheese cupcakes with chicken liver mousse and kumquats.

Mr. COANE: We've been to these nice, Michelin three-star restaurants. They're fantastic, but this is a whole other level.

COHEN: Diner Max Coane likens this experience to a speakeasy. It's nearly impossible to get in, and when you do, it's like walking into an underground party.

Mr. COANE: To me, what he's doing is revolutionary and awesome.

COHEN: He is 39-year-old Chef Ludo Lefebvre. He's French, terribly handsome, covered in tattoos, and he really knows how to cook. Lefebvre earned Mobile Travel Guide Five Star awards at two of L.A.'s most prestigious restaurants. But in 2007, he decided he was done working for other people.

Mr. LUDO LEFEBVRE (Chef): I realize, you know, I just want my freedom, and I need to cook what I want, what I feel.

COHEN: Lefebvre found investors willing to give him $2 million to open a restaurant of his own. But then he got cold feet.

Mr. LEFEBVRE: I always say to Krissy, my wife, why I cannot just rent a restaurant for one year like we rent a house? Because, you know, I was very scared to sign a lease for 10 years or 15 years. That's scary.

COHEN: Much less scary? A short-term cooking commitment. Lefebvre asked a friend with a bakery that closed at night if he could turn it into a pop-up restaurant, one that would suddenly appear for a few weeks in the evenings and then close down. He christened his guerrilla-style eatery LudoBites, scrambled to put together a wait staff, got a few student chefs to work the kitchen.

Mr. LEFEBVRE: The people came three days before we opened the restaurant, all the staff. We work on the recipe for two days, and we open. That's it. Pam-poom.

COHEN: Without the typical overhead costs of a regular restaurant, Lefebvre is able to offer fine cuisine at a much cheaper price. He changes the menu anytime he wants. In L.A., where foodies are constantly looking for the next great thing, the pop-up formula worked. As evidenced by what happened when one of the city's most beloved food critics showed up. Ludo's wife, Krissy Lefebvre, recalls that night.

Ms. KRISSY LEFEBVRE: We had some 17 or 18-year-old hostess in the door. And we were packed. And Jonathan Gold walks in, and she just says to him, sir, I'm sorry, we don't have any room for you.

COHEN: They made room and got great reviews from Gold and from lots of food bloggers. The first run of LudoBites in 2007 was such a huge success that the couple took their profits and survived comfortably without working for a while. So they launched another pop-up, and another, moving venues and constantly switching up the fare.

Krissy Lefebvre says reservations for the current iteration, LudoBites 5.0, were snatched up in less than 20 minutes online.

Ms. LEFEBVRE: Most restaurants don't announce reservations and have 3,000 people come on at once. I mean, it's really like releasing a concert.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

COHEN: And at LudoBites, the chef is like a rock star. Customers can watch as Lefebvre whips up caramel souffle with sea salt ice cream behind the sandwich bar. Diners beg to take their photograph with him. For groupies like Megan Malanga, it's the ephemeral nature of the restaurant that makes it so special.

Ms. MEGAN MALANGA: It's a great move to make people think that you'll never be able to do this again. It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

COHEN: And it's an experience the Lefebvre's don't plan on giving up any time soon. They're currently scouting new locations for LudoBites 6.0.

For NPR News, I'm Alex Cohen in Los Angeles.

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