The Pop Up Bar Is Here to Stay

BY: Sarah Gorr |Dec 27, 2018

Friends at a Pop Up Bar

The first time I remember hearing about a pop up bar was back in 2015. Local Chicago watering hole The Whistler announced it would be re-creating the Mos Eisley cantina from the original Star Wars to celebrate the release of The Force Awakens, complete with themed drinks, costumes, and a band of aliens playing that famous theme. The bar nabbed headlines when the line to get in wrapped around the block and wait times reached the two and three hour mark!

But that was hardly the first pop up; it was just the first to catch my eye. Since then, the pop up trend has exploded, and some bars now even have dedicated pop up spaces. Themes run the gamut from pop culture fare like Stranger Things, Game of Thrones, and Twin Peaks to seasonal events like Christmas and the cherry blossom festival. But just where did this trend come from? Let’s take a closer look, shall we?


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Pop Up Bars Weren’t Always Bars

The first pop ups weren’t bars. They were restaurants. It’s not entirely clear what the first pop up was, but people started taking serious note of the trend in the late 2000s. Celebrity chefs could more or less take their food (and their brand) on tour, literally popping up in different cities to offer their dishes for a limited time only. Sometimes that meant operating out of a food truck or outdoor space, sometimes it meant a “secret” restaurant housed inside another, and in the UK, it might even mean operating out of a private residence.

But no one had thought much about translating the pop up trend to cocktails until Greg Boehm came along in 2014.



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A Holly Jolly Pop Up

Boehm, a cocktail aficionado and founder of upscale bar-tool supplier Cocktail Kingdom, was poised to open his bar Mace in New York. He’d just purchased the building, when according to Eater, his mom suggested that he turn it into a Christmas-themed bar before the holidays. It would be easy to decorate it with cheap Christmas decor and it would bring in some money before the space was officially ready to open.

Well, mom really does know best because the pop up, dubbed Miracle on 9th Street, was a huge hit. Not only does it return every year, but it’s grown into a full-blown international phenomenon, showing up in local bars during the holiday season everywhere from Toronto to London to Mexico City to Birmingham, Alabama!



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From Tinsel and Twinkle Lights to Twin Peaks

While pop up bars started out as seasonal affairs, it didn’t take long for intrepid bar owners to realize the power of the pop culture pop up. Instead of being tied to the season, they might celebrate a new season of TV instead. This means that instead of merely purchasing an ungodly amount of tinsel, it’s all about re-creating as many details from the show or movie it’s celebrating as possible.

When I attended Emporium’s Stranger Things popup (which was later famously served a cease and desist letter from Netflix before they allowed the popup to conclude its run!), that meant not only was there an Eggo-adorned cocktail to sip, but an entire room nailed to the ceiling in homage to the Upside Down.

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Drink Company, which specializes in creating elaborate popup experiences, has re-created everything from
Game of Thrones’s Iron Throne to the Queen’s actual throne in celebration of the Royal Wedding. LA even welcomed the ominous and eerie Bang Bang Bar of Twin Peaks fame, which featured that classic black and white zigzag flooring and a shrine to Laura Palmer. But even more seemingly simplistic pop ups can be a hit, as Bucktown Pub’s Wayne’s World tribute showed. Drinking in your own basement is boring, but grabbing a pint in Garth’s? Now that’s Instagrammable.


Are They Worth the Hype?

Which brings us to the real truth about the pop up craze: it’s often as much about the photo ops as it is about the space itself. But I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. When done poorly, a pop up bar can seem like a petty cash grab, but those aren’t the ones that get the word-of-mouth praise or the lines around the block. The ones that go all out to salute your favorite holiday or show with a killer attention to detail and great drinks to boot? Who wouldn’t want to snap some pics of that? After all, it’ll disappear in the blink of an eye.

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