Dinner Lab takes adventurous diners around the world and around the city.

Photo of Dinner Lab by Kristy Oustalet
By Kristy Oustalet

Nothing makes you appreciate the details of setting up a restaurant like setting one up week after week in unusual locations. When Dinner Lab hosted a dinner atop a CBD parking garage, they only realized as the sun started to set that the stairs they'd gone up and down all afternoon while setting up would be pitch black at night. A quick run for candles solved the problem and transformed an industrial space into something more intimate.

"Or what happens when you're in a warehouse in a downpour and there are leaks?" asks Bryson Aust, Chief Financial Officer for Dinner Lab, a business that does pop-up dinner parties with world cuisine menus. These are just a few of the challenges the new company has encountered in its efforts broaden New Orleans' dining options.

Dinner Lab was conceptualized by Brian Bordainick, Dirty Coast's Blake Haney, and Chef Paco Robert, who felt like New Orleans had a lot of up-and-coming culinary talent that represents a variety of ethnic cuisines that needed a platform.  They decided that pop-up dinner parties in unsual spaces around town could be that platform. They test-drove the concept 10 to 15 times in varying sizes and locations before going official. Since then, there have been three events, with a five-course Ethiopian meal planned for Saturday and at least one more before the end of the year. 

The big-picture challenge is how to harness the chaos implicit in the concept. "How can we make this more turn-key, more predicatable and offer a better experience?" Aust asks. The nuts and bolts challenges shape that. Dinner Lab has hosted parties in warehouses and on an unused floor of Canal Place - wide open spaces that have to be carefully managed to keep the guests from spreading out too far.

"Unlike a traditional restaurant, we are unable to leverage the knowledge we built at the last place," he says. "We have to do it brand new each time - different menu, different chef, different employees, different everything.  Where are people going to sit? Park? We're starting to get it down."

The Dinner Lab concept is that diners pay an annual membership fee, and they are invited to dinners that are reasonably priced - generally in the $50 range with alcohol and tip included. They plan to cap membership soon, if not after Saturday's party, then by the end of the year to maintain an economically and socially viable number. 

Members will be able to access the whole Dinner Lab website, where they can register their preferences and build a profile so their interests can be accommodated where possible, or they can be steered toward dinners more likely to suit them. "Unlike a public, open invite, we can curate the people who'll come to an event," Aust says. "If we know that it's going to be a Jamaican meal, not only would we find people who would enjoy spices, but people who have other commonalities so that conversation's easy." In the long run, they hope to open Dinner Lab chapters around the country, with members in one city able to attend parties in other cities as well.

The concept has a built-in degree of adventure, so Dinner Lab is discovering a fairly wide range of tolerances. "There's nothing wrong with wanting to stay in your own neighborhood or wanting to get out and explore some pretty raw spaces," Aust says. "Some like a more comfortable environment."  

He speaks about Dinner Lab as an organizer and a fan. "I went to one of the pop-up dinners," Aust says. He knew some of the people and helped out with technology questions informally at first before his arrangment became more official. "I've never been involved in a true start-up; it's been fantastic."

Because of that background as a diner, the success of the most recent dinner - Thai - made a particular impact on him. "It was exactly the right number [of people]," Aust says. "It was the first time partners didn't have the opportunity of eating."