Moving to a new city can be daunting. I speak from experience, having recently moved from New Orleans to San Antonio for a new job.
Every city has its own character, its own scene, its own little gardens of delight, but while some city scenes are easy all-access, putting it all out there for newcomers in a ‘come and take it’ fashion, some are more hidden, harder to find, elusive in a way as that might dishearten uproots such as myself, who often find themselves looking with varying degrees of success for the all old things in all the new places.
For me music, art, society and food are the cornerstones of life,. They make me happy, and in my old city I knew exactly where to find them.
New Orleans isn’t called the Big Easy for nothing. Live music abounds, there are more artists than you can shake a grant at, the social scene is effortless as long as you expand your search beyond Bourbon Street, and of course, food, food, food wherever you go. The Crescent City swarms with restaurants, often nestled tightly together and bracketed by bars a mere stagger distance away.
San Antonio has proved a little trickier for me, a little more elusive. Perhaps it is the size of the city that makes meeting like-minded people harder. Perhaps I am used to my social life finding me rather than the other way around. It is easy in the Big Easy to stumble across not so hidden treasures, but here San Antonio, where I have no roots whatsoever, how exactly does one find a place where social life, art, food, and music combine? Where to find a good jumping off point for discovering the hidden treasures of the San Antonio that I knew had to be out there?
As I found out to my great pleasure, you can do worse than attend one of Tim McDiarmid’s Special Projects Socials, a series of ‘pop-up restaurants’ that combines healthful, locally sourced dining, the talents of local musicians and artists, and exciting exploratory excursions in a single event open to all those searching for that little bit of adventure.
The difficulties of trying to find your feet in a new city is something that McDiarmid, aka ‘Tim the Girl’, is no stranger to herself. A native of British Columbia, Canada, McDiarmid moved to New York City at age 20, swapping a town of less than 200 people for the bustle of one of the most intensely urban cities in America. She lived there for 17 years, until a series of personal upheavals, including the birth of her son, and a romantic break-up led to a decision three years ago to swap NYC for San Antonio. The transition brought a lot of change, both personally and socially, and it was this sense of dislocation that helped to inspire the Special Project Social.
“I didn’t want to be a single mom living in NYC,” McDiarmid said. “I was ready to do something. I am pretty social and out there, but I think that for a while I was like looking around and wondering where is the life that I was used to. I couldn’t find it, so I just decided to work.”
And work she did, teaming up with artist Peter Zubiate for the first SPS, an event conceived as a one-time art project for Contemporary Art Month in 2011.
Today, McDiarmid as ‘Tim the Girl Catering’, juggles many hats, including Weekly Health Meal Delivery, Catering and Event Planning, private chef services, cooking classes, and, of course, regular Special Projects Socials. Many cities host events similar to the SPS, but according to Tim, the SPS has morphed into something more than just a quirky location pop up restaurant, it is a pathway into San Antonio’s social scene and its diverse neighborhoods, where denizens – both local or new – can explore off-the-track experiences without preconceptions and prejudices getting in the way.
“I think we have done around 13 now,” said McDiarmid. “Over time, it has really picked up speed, and I think that a lot of the people who are the most intrigued by it maybe just moved here, and they are looking for that thing that I was looking for when I first came here. I come from a theatre background, and food is art. It’s about putting people outside their comfort zone. We have people who buy single tickets for all of the Socials, every one. We have a lot of quite amazing connections between people, jobs they have found through connections, life-long friends they have made through coming to the parties. That was an important part of it for us, even from the beginning to try to create a meeting place for people from all different walks of life.”
Each SPS event is eclectically themed and the one that I was lucky enough to attend was called ‘Al Dente’, and held in the home and studio of guest artist/host Sam Giesey and his wife Kelly O’Conner.
From the beginning it was more than just a dinner. The venue was amazing, an old mercantile building on the south side of San Antonio, renovated by a well-known interior designer and built into three apartments on each floor. The event was held on the top floor, with Giesey’s unsettling, somewhat macabre but strangely beautiful art covering the walls for display and sale, completely in keeping with the Halloween timeframe of the event. See Monika Maeckle’s story on the pop-up dinner scene that McDiarmid’s SPS has spawned.
The long tables gleamed, set with plates decorated in a gold-plated toothy fashion by Giesey, take home souvenirs for diners. As guests arrived they were greeted by hostess Kelly O’Conner in a tight cat-suit and ears, and a smiling lace-clad witchy Tim. The common look on each face was one of amazed delight, even before they saw the dining room. There is no seating order at the SPS events, first come, first seated and sit where you like is the rule, which makes for interesting pairings. The tables and benches used for each event are hand-made by Peter Zubiate, and while comfortable, they were narrow enough to instantly push diners together in a rather more intimate fashion that many might expect.
The dishes vary in reflecting of the event location and the seasonal availability of ingredients. In the case of ‘al dente’ the menu was inspired McDiarmid’s 2012 summer trip to Italy, and was served ‘family style’ from common serving plates. The first course was a delicate Gallete of Smoked Mushroom, followed by Salad of Smoked Fish, Shaved Kale with Reggiano, Braised Short Ribs with Buttered Pasta, and Pave de Chocolate e Café.
With the informal serving style, specialty cocktail aperitifs mixed by guest mixologist Jaret Peña, and the seemingly never-ending bottles of wine, it didn’t take long for any ice to be well and truly broken. People might have been out of their comfort range, but if so, they appeared to have found themselves in a place they liked and wanted to share with fellow diners, both newcomers like myself, and regulars like San Antonio photographer Ginger Freiling Diaz.
“Tim does our food, we get food delivery,” said Diaz. “And I heard who the artist was, and I have always been always been in love with this building. So I was hoping that it would be held here, and when we got here it is even better than I thought it would be. It is like a whole experience, the merging of all the senses together. It is like performance art. Tim has a good way of connecting people who are really talented in what they do.”
First timers Henry and Jean Halff were equally impressed.
“I am always willing to try new things, “said Henry, beard as white as his smile. “ And this is wonderful. Never seen anything like it.”
And neither had I. For those on a strict budget, the standing price of $120 for each diner might seem a little high, but the combination of the gothic setting, the great food, the friendliness of fellow diners, and just the sense of adventure I enjoyed discovering a side of San Antonio that I might never have seen, all added up to an experience that I would definitely recommend to anyone looking for that something just a little bit more out of the ordinary.
And my bicuspid adorned Giesey plate? It now has pride of place in my new apartment in a new city that is now just a little bit tiny more mine.
Sharon Armstrong is a Scottish freelance journalist currently based in San Antonio, Texas and New Orleans, Louisiana. She has a BA in English and Psychology from Strathclyde University in Glasgow, and a Masters in Journalism from Napier University, Edinburgh. She has worked as a writer, photographer, producer and DJ for media outlets in Greensboro, Edinburgh, New Orleans, Austin (Edible Austin), and (now) San Antonio. Sharon currently writes for the Living Tradition Magazine, covering music and music-based news on both sides of the Atlantic, and the WWOZ the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Station’s website. Find her on LinkedIn.