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The rise of the secret supper club
December 1, 2012 6:04 PM   Subscribe

For the past two years, in a loft apartment in downtown Los Angeles, Craig Thornton has been conducting an experiment in the conventions of high-end American dining. Several nights a week, a group of sixteen strangers gather around his dining-room table to eat delicacies he has handpicked and prepared for them, from a meticulously considered menu over which they have no say.
posted by Egg Shen (51 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
I read and enjoyed that article in the paper edition, but mostly I want to know how there were still live koi in the pond in the abandoned restaurant.
posted by moonmilk at 6:07 PM on December 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


Is it really on the rise? I feel like there is a story like this every four years. [Citation needed]
posted by knile at 6:07 PM on December 1, 2012 [9 favorites]


It's wildly popular in places like Buenos Aires, where the price of opening a restaurant is incredibly high due to the bureaucracy, but the odds of getting busted for running a "closed door" restaurant are incredibly low. The best food in BA is in the "puertas cerradas". I'm not sure if it's on the rise but it's a trend that's been steady for at least 4-5 years and is not going away.
posted by carlodio at 6:11 PM on December 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


Lost boys flock to him; at any given time, there are a couple of them camping on his floor, in tents and on bedrolls.

this must be that new school of journalism where you say something really bizarre and kind of pedophile-sounding about someone in an otherwise unrelated article and then never make reference to it again
posted by threeants at 6:12 PM on December 1, 2012 [24 favorites]


There was a place here in Minneapolis like this. I think it closed a few years ago.
posted by cthuljew at 6:19 PM on December 1, 2012


I went to a private supper club in Paris while I was there on a business trip and the experience was absolutely amazing.

The place was probably fairly well known (I was pointed to it via Metafilter, after all), and I think they finally got the restaurant license they were looking for so I don't know if it's still running. It was an American couple living in Paris who couldn't break through the bureaucracy, and decided to direct their talents towards this particular effort.

Reservations were made through an e-mail, where I was originally told they were booked for several months (!) and I wouldn't be able to dine there while I was in town. The day after I arrived, though, I received an e-mail that there was a cancellation and a seat for one was available! After confirming, they provided their address and asked not to distribute it to anyone else.

They live in a beautiful apartment in a wonderful old building, and I was greeted at the door with a champagne cocktail. The table was set up in their living room and seated 16 - the wife was responsible for front-of-house duties as well as the wine list and dessert, and the husband worked the kitchen. They hired a waitress and a sous chef, for a total of four people cooking and serving dinner to our party.

The dining table consisted about half of Americans, plus a group of Norwegian women, a group of Australians, and one Parisian. Ten courses. Wine pairings with each. Coffee and petit fours after the dessert. It was the best meal I've ever had, bar none. To get around regulations, I suppose, the "check" was delivered as a guest book to sign along with a "suggested donation" for the price of the meal.

Moral of the story, if you can find one in your area you should jump on it. I think it's a great way for aspiring chefs to try their hand without the risk and expense of opening a whole restaurant. I have some photos starting here if anyone is interested.
posted by backseatpilot at 6:30 PM on December 1, 2012 [13 favorites]


Is it really on the rise? I feel like there is a story like this every four years.

And as it was the way restaurants and inns operated for centuries, it is not such a huge thing.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:38 PM on December 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


These were also pretty common in Berlin when I was there a few years ago, though not as high-end. One that I went to a few times -think it was actually called The Apartment- was in a squat and even took reservations. But aside from tasty food, mostly Indian, it was rather unpretentious, and I loved the weird mix of people you'd wind up sitting and conversing with.
posted by mannequito at 6:39 PM on December 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


(but seriously, was there no further explanation whatsoever as to why a bunch of boys were "camping" in his apartment, or am I just really bad at reading comprehension?)
posted by threeants at 6:54 PM on December 1, 2012


And as it was the way restaurants and inns operated for centuries, it is not such a huge thing.

"You get what we give you" is old, "welcome to my actual dining room in my apartment" isn't the way restaurants operated for centuries, though.
posted by kenko at 7:06 PM on December 1, 2012


Odd choice here:
A recipe for Wolves in the Snow, a dish of venison with cauliflower purée, hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, beet-blackberry gastrique, and Douglas-fir gelée, which Thornton published in L.A. Weekly, instructs, “Rip venison apart with two forks, which will act as sharp teeth. . . . Attack the plate with your blackberry beet ‘blood.’ ”
I would have thought "Douglas fir gelée", no hyphen.
posted by kenko at 7:11 PM on December 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


Cooking, he says, is “creating a big fucking problem and learning how to solve it.”
I think he will find, if he looks carefully, that it is actually "the heated preparation of food". He'd probably have less stress if someone told him.
posted by howfar at 7:16 PM on December 1, 2012 [30 favorites]


"You get what we give you" is old, "welcome to my actual dining room in my apartment" isn't the way restaurants operated for centuries, though.

Or maybe I'm wrong: "At the low end, there were taverns, frequently run out of people’s houses, where strangers drank and dined communally on whatever the proprietor was making that night."
posted by kenko at 7:21 PM on December 1, 2012


Pop-ups are pretty common in San Francisco.
posted by blob at 7:25 PM on December 1, 2012


Yeah, I would have to agree that supper clubs have been on the rise for a while now, at least three years. Maybe it's a newer phenomenon on the East Coast? It's a very interesting idea, if you don't mind the crapshoot of what quality food you'll get (as carefully detailed in the article).

Also, UCLA has done Dinner for 12 Strangers for a number of years and it's a pretty amazing tradition that's somewhat in line with this. An alum hosts 12 people connected with UCLA (faculty, students, alumni) in their house for chef's choice dinner. There's something about throwing together a dozen or so strangers in a room with dinner--whether at Wolvesmouth (den? whatever) or a UCLA alum's house--that just makes for a truly amazing experience.
posted by librarylis at 7:36 PM on December 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Some underground supper clubs are still doing interesting things, but they are by no means new or novel. Here, for example, is a not complete list of some of the better known ones around the world: http://www.saltshaker.net/underground-dining-scene
posted by jacquilynne at 7:41 PM on December 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


The hyphen is pendatic, but not incorrect. Douglas-firs are not actually firs (genus Abies), in spite of their original classification as such.
posted by Earthtopus at 7:47 PM on December 1, 2012 [8 favorites]


I love this story and hope the guy has wonderful success and gets to do exactly what he wants in the culinary world. He sounds amazing. I was also very impressed that 150 people dropped everything and went to his dinner in response to an email that only went out at 4 pm!
posted by Anitanola at 7:50 PM on December 1, 2012


(but seriously, was there no further explanation whatsoever as to why a bunch of boys were "camping" in his apartment, or am I just really bad at reading comprehension?)

Cooking tends to attract miscreants of all stripes. It's not unthinkable that a young chef might stage with him and end up crashing on his floor. It seems par for the course with a DIY, sort of thing.
posted by GilloD at 7:54 PM on December 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I had a loft in downtown LA, and I used to have an assortment of disreputable people over for my hand-picked gourmet meals. Except we called it a "dinner party." Shit, the pic even shows him cooking my specialty, grilled flank steak.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:20 PM on December 1, 2012


The experiment is called Wolvesmouth, the loft Wolvesden; Thornton is the Wolf.

Holy shit do they all eat while wearing 3 wolf moon shirts listing to "You're a Wolf" by Sea Wolf?

HEY PEOPLE WOLF SHIT WAS INCREDIBLY PLAYED OUT LIKE 4 YEARS AGO.
posted by nathancaswell at 8:54 PM on December 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Never change, New Yorker food issue.
posted by chinston at 9:03 PM on December 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


It's not new on the East Coast, either -- it's been going on in Brooklyn for 4-5 years as well.

I think it's "on the rise" in the sense of being sort of a hot new idea over the last half decade or so, but I don't know that there are more of them right now than there were six months ago or last year.

That, or the New Yorker is catching Times Disease. BTW, did you know that white people live in Brooklyn now?!
posted by Sara C. at 9:05 PM on December 1, 2012


While this looks lovely, the breathless "OMG, how edgy is this guy / food?" tone of the article made me abandon it half-way through.
posted by sp160n at 10:02 PM on December 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Shola Olunloyo was doing this under the name Studiokitchen in a West Philadelphia studio apartment over 10 years ago.
posted by desuetude at 10:48 PM on December 1, 2012


I remember my parents attending meals like this about 30 years ago. There was no sushi in town then, but plenty of fresh fish. If you got a dozen people together and called Betty Kao, she'd put together a meal at her house. I recall my mother disliking it and being suspicious of eating raw fish and my dad enthusiastically describing the mackerel as tasting like "licking a boat's hull, but good".
posted by BitterOldPunk at 11:12 PM on December 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Needs more "Three Wolves" t-shirt
posted by rudster at 11:48 PM on December 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


HEY PEOPLE WOLF SHIT WAS INCREDIBLY PLAYED OUT LIKE 4 YEARS AGO.

Kinda like (ionic?) writing in capital letters.
posted by ambient2 at 12:09 AM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


MetaFilter: a sapper with a live one.
posted by Splunge at 1:14 AM on December 2, 2012


Kinda like (ionic?) writing

ὦ οἰοῖ
posted by threeants at 1:31 AM on December 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


OK - who ate the dessicated crocodile head?
posted by Segundus at 1:54 AM on December 2, 2012


Is it really on the rise? I feel like there is a story like this every four years.

Yeah, there have been at least two cycles of news reports on this over here about how the newest trend about hip people in Rotterdam and Amsterdam are opening up their kitchens to strangers yadda yadda yadda.

Personally, I think it's all neat and cool and hip until some wannabe chef poisons his first batch of customers with e coli or salmonella.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:16 AM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


MetaFilter: tends to attract miscreants of all stripes.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 3:36 AM on December 2, 2012


Because licensed restaurants never have food poisoning accidents. /hamburger
posted by Goofyy at 3:43 AM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Clark Kellogg: But it's an endangered species!
Carmine Sabatini: Not any more. It's in New Jersey, it's fine.

posted by HuronBob at 4:07 AM on December 2, 2012


Wow, I'm so impressed that you guys knew about this already. You must be, like , so cool. I for one found the article interesting because I had heard about this but had never read an in-depth account. I also thought the Wolfsmouth guy's story was compelling. I wish there had been more descriptions of the supper clubs that weren't so successful. That part was pretty funny.
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 5:21 AM on December 2, 2012 [6 favorites]


I know some folks who ran an underground restaurant (and catering) out of their home for a while. Now they have an actual restaurant storefront and are doing pretty good business.
posted by rmd1023 at 6:15 AM on December 2, 2012


The experiment is called Wolvesmouth, the loft Wolvesden; Thornton is the Wolf.

Holy shit do they all eat while wearing 3 wolf moon shirts listing to "You're a Wolf" by Sea Wolf?


I've been trying to ID the shirt he's wearing in the photo - I thought it was for Wolves in the Throne Room, but it's not. Anyone got a larger copy of the pic?
posted by FatherDagon at 7:03 AM on December 2, 2012


I once cooked dinner.
posted by Damienmce at 8:07 AM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


But do they serve lutefisk? 'Cause from the link in the other FPP, that would be a deal breaker.
posted by mosk at 8:52 AM on December 2, 2012


The amateur molecular gastronomist. That was some funny stuff.
posted by queensissy at 9:22 AM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


I remember my parents attending meals like this about 30 years ago.

Yeah, my parents also did something not unlike that, 20-ish years ago. They didn't hire a chef, but they were in this "supper club" of local foodies in our small philistine town, and there's was some complex rotation of who would put on a lavish meal each week. It was my dad (not in the food industry in any way), the local supermarket owner, a wine dealer friend of his, another local doctor who happened to be a serious foodie, and a local chef. I'm sure the craziest shit happened at the wine dealer and the chef's meals, but AFAIK nobody wrote about them in the New Yorker.
posted by Sara C. at 10:10 AM on December 2, 2012


Personally, I think it's all neat and cool and hip until some wannabe chef poisons his first batch of customers with e coli or salmonella.

Yes. People will rant about how the Gub’ment is keeping them down and killing their cooking spirit animal, and then as soon as someone gets sick there will be cries of "why didn’t the inept Government stop this!"
posted by bongo_x at 10:11 AM on December 2, 2012


The goal of this kind of dining is not seduction; it is experience. In the underground, that can mean the experience of being served undercooked chicken by a couple of Southern gals in a little Spanish house in Laurel Canyon. (My husband vomited when we got home, though it could have been the full jar of homemade pickles he ate to kill time before the first course came out.)
posted by ovvl at 11:36 AM on December 2, 2012


It's like these people have never attended a dinner party before.
posted by Sara C. at 11:37 AM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think he will find, if he looks carefully, that it is actually "the heated preparation of food". He'd probably have less stress if someone told him.

I think when he says "creating problems" he means establishing self-imposed challenges. Creative people do this sometimes. The stress is part of the fun.
posted by ovvl at 11:46 AM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


So, in my State at least, the process of creating a legitimate formal restaurant isn't that onerous, it involves having a registered business and a commercial kitchen and premises. Not exactly a huge deal. It seems to me that the benefits of being legitimate are:
  • commercial kitchen means spot health checks
  • have to pay appropriate taxes
  • have to pay award wages to staff and follow employment laws
  • more likely to be insured
  • have to follow fire safety codes

    While the disbenefit is that you have to pay a bit for this. And you're no longer cool, hip and edgy, you're part of the system man. There is absolutely no reason at all that a small restaurant can't serve the freshest wild-picked ingredients with a fixed menu to a handful of guests. It's bollocks to suggest otherwise.

    I'm not suggesting Mr Thornton doesn't do any of these things, but I will suggest that more of these things aren't done in the underground 'scene' than among normal legitimate businesses.

    Underground dining is a bit of a wank really, and comes with real risks, maybe not much to you as the diner, but to the social contract of a safe experience for both diners and employees.

  • posted by wilful at 3:09 PM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


    So, in my State at least, the process of creating a legitimate formal restaurant isn't that onerous, it involves having a registered business and a commercial kitchen and premises.

    wilful
    , I must beg to differ. I don't know how it goes in your state, but in NSW, that's actually quite difficult.

    Firstly, the cost of a commercial kitchen is substantial. Even for a small restaurant, say 30 seats, a kitchen on the cheap using second hand gear will run you around $20K (AUD).

    If you open in a venue that hasn't been a restaurant before, getting planning permission for that kind of development takes on average about 4 months. The consultants you need to get that done (fire safety, food safety, disability access...etc) can cost about $15-20K all up. That doesn't count getting a liquor licence (which is, admittedly, far easier in your state than in NSW). Being able to sell alcohol is a big deal for restaurants - it's where the profit margin is.

    But that's also 4 months where you generally have to pay rent. The market is hard these days, and a lot of landlord no longer offer rent free periods or similar. So there's an additional cost.

    Then, of course, there's the cost of fitout. That all depends on how fancy you want to go. I've seen it done cheaply with friends and elbow grease and stolen milk crates, and I've seen it done expensively.

    But all up, it's a lot of cash and work no matter how you add it up. It is a huge deal.
    posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 2:08 AM on December 3, 2012


    Metafilter: Like licking a boat's hull, but good.
    posted by straw man special at 2:44 PM on December 3, 2012


    That's it. I am so done with trying to be a nice landscape architect. Fuck that. I am going underground, and no more coddling unappreciative clients.
    posted by Xoebe at 4:56 PM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


    That's the spirit, get to the root of the problem!
    posted by mannequito at 1:56 AM on December 4, 2012


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