On a crisp October evening, a small group of friends sat on the lawn of a Rosewood neighborhood home, dining on traditional Indian comfort food.
"There were lights strung, there were furs and blankets on the grass and we were all experiencing this food together and the camaraderie," said Nell Fuller, who attended the dinner.
What began as a cozy dinner party to showcase a friend's talent for cooking, turned into a conversation. Then, an idea. And in only a few weeks, a one weekend-only restaurant popup in Five Points.
The event, a temporary restaurant known as the Dal House came from members, like Fuller, of Cola Love, a group making a push for new entrepreneurs and the community to be at the center of the city's economic development.
The restaurant, which was open for three evenings in the former Cellar on Greene space the first weekend in December, drew upwards of 200 people a night, according to organizers. Chef Taimoor Shahid, a friend of the organizers, prepared an intimate menu of south-Asian food that included Dal Mazedar (Tasty Dal), a hearty red lentil stew, and Aalu Bharta, a type of smashed potatoes with a handful of spices and served with mango chutney.
"This is the kind of Indian or South Asian or Pakistani food that you will get not at a restaurant, mostly because South Asian restaurants are locked into certain kinds of cuisine... what I did was more what you would eat at home," Shahid said.
The Dal House in Five Points had a similar feel to the October dinner party – shared seating and accessible meals in an intimate space. As word got out about the restaurant, hundreds of people stopped by throughout the weekend.
The idea started when Mara Zepeda met Shahid through shared connections in the University of South Carolina history department. Shahid had a passion for cooking, one that he's grown into over the last decade experimenting in his own kitchen, and Zepeda had a vision for changing what it means to be an entrepreneur in Columbia.
Together, Shahid and the group of women – Zepeda, Julie Tuttle, Caroline Smith and Fuller – planned the pop-up in a little over two weeks. The short timeframe meant getting the event approved by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, utilizing a handful of USC business students as volunteers to run it and getting the word out over social media.
"It's very impressive to start a business from scratch just for the weekend. I mean, it took us months of preparation and creating service manuals and menus to get us open. So the fact that they're doing it just for a weekend is really quite impressive," said Jonathan Lopez, who owns Hampton Street Vineyard and attended the restaurant pop-up.
The event was also an opportunity for Shahid to experiment with dishes he's been perfecting for more than a decade. The 35-year-old grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, watching his mom and grandmother cook, but never joining. Around 2011, he began cooking for himself. Shahid learned that his sense of smell helped him tremendously in the kitchen, crediting it to making him a good cook despite not having experience inside of a restaurant.
"I've been thinking about it more and more as a performance, almost like theater or art, but with food," Shahid said. "Not just the art of taste, but also the art of smell. That's how I learned to cook."
The pop-up, while temporary, is something that the group hopes to continue in the city. They also want to use what they learned from hosting the event to inform and train other entrepreneurs about the hoops and obstacles of starting a business.
Zepeda, who's worked in economic development for a decade, said helping entrepreneurs find resources and community in Columbia is the key to creating unique, thriving businesses.
"I really hope that, with time and logistics, we can recreate this again, but some of it was just born out of the spirit of what was happening," Tuttle added. "I think it was the perfect launching for whatever Cola Love does next."