Craig Thornton did not intend for his apartment’s kitchen table to turn into one of the most coveted reservations in Los Angeles. Thornton started hosting small, by-donation dinners out of his kitchen three years ago, looking to hone his culinary style absent the influence of restaurant management or other chefs. “I wanted to understand the diner on a deeper, more intimate level,” he says. “What is the food worth to them? What does it mean to eat luxuriously? What ingredients do people respond to emotionally?”
Thornton found his answers. The dinners—now regular, high-profile and called Wolvesmouth—host 18 guests three to six times a week in his kitchen for an eight- to ten-course meal. The menu features ingredients that strike his fancy at that day’s farmers’ market; dishes have included pork belly with fried green strawberries and squid with a 38-day dry-aged steak tartare and kimchi.
Underground dinners are a full-blown trend, a new frontier of its fine-dining counterpart. Adventurous diners love the intimacy of watching a master chef at work in his or her own kitchen, the opportunity to bond with fellow guests over an unconventional experience and, of course, the exclusivity: Wolvesmouth receives anywhere from 700 to 1,000 reservation requests via e-mail for the 36 seats available every weekend.
The groups that gather for dinners thrown by chef David Anthony Temple are slightly larger (around 30 people), but the convivial, interactive gatherings are nevertheless occasions for networking and making new friends. Temple, known as Chef DAT, throws them all over the country, and members of his e-mail list who score a seat receive specifics about location, attire and menu on the morning of the event. The guerrilla, hit-and-run nature is all part of the fun, but the food is no joke. “We do serious fine dining, seven courses, the best ingredients in the world, all locally sourced, all organic,” says DAT.
The Blind Pig Supper Club in Asheville, North Carolina, and Sous Rising in Chicago, housed in the home of an Alinea alum, are but a few of the other options out there. Bring an appetite—and a sense of adventure.