One of the toughest spots to get a dinner reservation in Los Angeles this summer is at a tiny café in a dingy corner of the fashion district. But the immensely popular restaurant will shut down in a few weeks. That's because LudoBites is what's known as a "pop-up restaurant."
Each weeknight, a sandwich shop with just 14 tables in downtown Los Angeles is transformed into a high-end restaurant. On a recent busy night, the menu featured confit pork belly with mustard ice cream, and cheese cupcakes with chicken liver mousse and kumquats.
Diner Max Coane likens the experience to a speakeasy – it's nearly impossible to get in, and when you do, it's like walking into an underground party.
"We've been to these nice Michelin three-star restaurants," he says. "They're fantastic, but this is a whole 'nother level."
And as for chef Ludo Lefebvre, Coane says, "To me, what he's doing is revolutionary and awesome."
Lefebvre is French, terribly handsome, covered in tattoos -- and he really knows how to cook.
Lefebvre, 39, earned Mobile Travel Guide Five Star awards at two of Los Angeles' most prestigious restaurants. But in 2007, he decided he was done working for other people.
"I realize, you know, I just want my freedom," Lefebvre says. "I need to cook what I want, what I feel."
After finding investors who were willing to give him $2 million to open his own restaurant, Lefebvre got cold feet.
"I always say to Krissy, my wife, why I cannot just rent a restaurant for one year, like we rent a house?" Lefebvre says. "Because, you know, I was very scared to sign a lease for 10 years or 15 years -- that's scary."
Much less scary, he says, is 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 guerilla-style eatery LudoBites, scrambled to put together a wait staff, and got a few student chefs to work the kitchen.
"The people come three days before we open the restaurant, all the staff," Lefebvre says. "We work on the recipe for two days and we open – that's it. Pam poom."
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 any time he wants. In L.A., where foodies are constantly looking for the next great thing, the pop-up formula worked.
Consider what happened when one of L.A.'s most beloved food critics showed up. Ludo's wife, Krissy Lefebvre, recalls that night.
"We had some 17- or 18-year-old hostess in the door," she says. "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.'"
They made room -- and got great reviews from Gold and many other 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 then another, moving venues and constantly switching up the fare.
Krissy Lefebvre says that reservations for the current iteration, LudoBites 5.0, were snatched up in less than 20 minutes on their Web site.
"Most restaurants don't announce reservations and have 3,000 people come on at once," she says. "I mean, it's really like releasing a concert."
And at LudoBites, the chef is like a rock star. Customers can watch as Lefebvre whips up caramel soufflé with sea salt ice cream behind the sandwich bar. Diners beg to take their photograph with him.
For diners like Megan Malanga, it's the ephemeral nature of the restaurant that makes it so special.
"It's a great move to make people think that you'll never be able to do this again," she says. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
And it's an experience the Lefebvres don't plan on giving up any time soon. They're currently scouting new locations for LudoBites 6.0.