What's Next for L.A.'s Underground Dining Scene?

Selective dining experiences are nothing new to Los Angeles. Since men with money have inhabited Southern California (a long, long time), supper clubs, password bars and country club luncheons have dotted the landscape. Some, like Koreatown's R Bar, aren't strict about the rules for entry, or paradoxically use the concept of exclusion to draw in customers. Others, like The Varnish downtown, simply don't tell you anything one way or the other. There's only an unmarked door along the back wall of one of the city's old sandwich vanguards, Cole's. Places like these rely on the passive expansion of in-the-know details to bring customers through the unassuming doorway.

Then there is the L.A. pop-up restaurant, the wildly popular cooking experience that gives potential diners few details and long waitlists, with the promise of expertly plated courses prepared by some of the hottest chefs in the city. Ludo Lefebvre, that tattooed Frenchman with a knack for foie gras, has made an incredible living, and a less-incredible television show, out of popping up for short stints in various kitchens across town. Elsewhere, downtown dinner parties like Craig Thornton's Wolvesmouth aren't so much about managing the secret eating experience as managing the waitlist, a cumbersome document that is packed with the names of patient diners who may not snag a seat until sometime later this decade.

With a popularity that has far eclipsed the hush-hush nature of gourmet meals served in homes or inside the darkened corners of spaces otherwise not in use, the whole underground food scene seems a little bit like the club from "Night at the Roxbury": it's all inside out. So the inevitable question is, what's next? How do a handful of individual chefs, working to create a unique dining experience for often only a dozen hungry eaters a night, keep future customers from banging down their door while not losing the intimate concept that first brought them into this world? For answers, we looked to a few of L.A.'s most prominent pop-up artists, as well as a couple of guys who -- despite their popularity -- haven't even moved the party from their own dining rooms yet.

Craig Thornton's ultra-popular Wolvesmouth dinners have attracted influential diners in downtown Los Angeles for a few years, and with that popularity comes a wait that can be maddening, even if you heard about the secret suppers years ago. "I do 6 - 8 dinners a month, and we aren't even hitting 1% of our wait list", says Thornton. "In the next six months, I've really got to figure this out. You see people at a club, and it's only so long that they'll wait outside before they stop going. All of a sudden, the unpretentious starts looking pretentious."

Everyone we interviewed agrees, managing the reservation system, any social media presence and the business side of the house while still serving the public is a double-edged chef's knife. At least initially, the idea of DIY restaurateuring is alluring. "People can't afford the expensive lawyers to set up their LLCs and architects to conceptually design a space," says Gary Menes, who runs the pop up Le Comptoir out of the kitchen space at Tiara Café downtown on 9th Street. His $52, five-course dinners are a steal in the pop-up world, where gourmet evenings like his usually crest the $100 peak. The solution? Do more with less. "I have myself, two sous chefs and a hostess who works part time. We all make minimum wage. It's like a sushi counter, we all make tips. But that's how we keep the dream going."

For Miles Thompson, former chef in the Animal/Son of a Gun empire, his Vagrancy Project is loaded with question marks, largely because he runs dinners out of his living room. With only a few dinners a month and a "suggested donation" model, sometimes it can feel a lot easier to sink than swim. "Twice I've had diners not leave anything, but you just have to roll with the punches. This isn't a restaurant, it's me in my dining room, and when people don't pay or make reservations and don't show up, it sucks. But I still think this is a sustainable business model."

The challenges are everywhere, but the demand for in-the-know eating continues to increase. "That's been one of the more interesting new developments," says Thornton. "People are really latching onto the fact that the whole thing is an experience." At the end of the day, serving good food and giving people what they want will continue to be the most important thing to any chef, but creating a unique social environment that gets people talking is a close second. "They expect a lot from you," says Felix Barron, whose KTCHN DTLA brunch pop-up in The Gorbals downtown is winning hearts and clogging arteries. "It has to be the food, sure, but it also has to be service. Environment is crucial."

And so it seems the basics -- the food and the atmosphere -- will continue to drive underground dining more into the streetlights. And, as Menes and Thompson agree, the model is working. After thirteen Vagrancy Projects in his own home, Thompson has managed to avoid pitfalls long enough to begin phase two, a pop-up at Echo Park's Allston Yacht Club. Menes is in discussions to move on to his own dedicated spot, without leaving the concept behind. Thornton, for all his reservation woes, clearly has a hit on his hands.

For now, the pool of pop-up chefs is still relatively small. Unlike food trucks that (seemingly) only require a lease on a truck and some sort of fusion menu before hitting the streets, there is no barrier between the chef, the food and the customers in the underground dinner world. Le Comptoir does timed seatings with only twelve diners at a time. Each one faces Menes and his staff from across the long counter, chatting with the chef while he prepares their meals. The Vagrancy Project exists in a one-bedroom apartment with a four-top stove, yet Thompson still emerges with plates of guinea hen and fennel or Hakkaido scallop with rhubarb and elderflowers.

That may be the biggest deterrent to the potential saturation of this urban-only market. The only person who loses out when the restaurant concept gets more personal is the chef who can't handle the heat, or the patron who doesn't belong in the kitchen. Each chef will tell you some variation on the following: "I'm constantly under live fire," "I'm only one person," or "it may look easy, but it's not in the least." For lesser chefs, it sounds remarkably like the whiff of someone throwing in the towel. But for Menes and Thornton and Thompson and Barron, the whole thing drips of determination. And so, as you take in plate after plate of prix-fixe dinners and indulgent weekend brunches, it's easy to imagine this all still being here in two or three years. Not because it's grown to the point of absurdity; because a few great chefs refused to let their concepts die.

Photos of the Wolvesmouth dining experience from Flickr user lesleyk; clandestine photo of The Varnish from Flickr user jojomelons.

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About the Author

Farley Elliott is a freelance food writer and comedian. He currently writes for KCET.org, SeriousEats.com, LAist.com, and L.A. Weekly. You can catch Farley doing comedy at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in Hollywood.
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