Twelve people, mostly strangers, gather at a long wood table in a downtown loft. What appear to be rock band castoffs work in organized frenzy in the kitchen. The first dish arrives, looking equal parts plating accident and Picasso: A square of protein—rabbit or maybe pork belly—sits beside a glazed carrot. An unidentifiable shard rests next to a liquid that’s just as mysterious. The crowd utters a collective “ooooh.”
Wolvesmouth, as this experience is known, is the pet project of 30-year-old Craig Thornton, who was the first among a growing number of chefs to eschew a conventional restaurant career (for now) in favor of hosting underground dinners. “It’s about connecting with people,” says Thornton. “That doesn’t work with 120 people in a restaurant.”
At these food-focused happenings there’s no valet parking, no ordering off a menu—and the 8 to 12 courses rival L.A.’s most haute cuisine menus in terms of ambition. “These things aren’t just dinner parties—they’re performance pieces,” says Miles Thompson, a onetime Son of a Gun sous-chef and former Wolvesmouth kitchen hand who launched his own dinner series, the Vagrancy Project, in February. “The meals are a play in texture and taste and memory.” The decor can be as intricate as the food. “I ended up making the chandelier for my last dinner,” says Roberto Cortez, who runs his CR8 dinners out of local art galleries. “I want diners to feel a certain way as they’re eating.”
What diners won’t feel is sticker shock. For legal reasons meals are served on a donation-only basis—you pay what you want. The Wolvesmouth waiting list is a year long, but Thornton understands that this could change. “There is only so long before you start alienating people,” he says.