Could Vespertine Be the Landmark Restaurant Los Angeles Needs?
Yesterday the L.A. Times reported on chef Jordan Kahn's forthcoming project in Culver City, a 22-seat, $250-per-person restaurant called Vespertine. Kahn has always been a bounadry-pusher, and Vespertine looks to be his most ambitious, boundary-pushing project to date.
Here's a quick idea of what I mean by boundary-pushing: The restaurant will be a collaboration between Kahn and Eric Owen Moss, the architect who has been responsible for leading the revitalization of Hayden Tract in Culver City, mostly by erecting fantastical buildings throughout the neighborhood, which has become a kind of walkable gallery of his work. Vespertine will reside in one such building, known as "the Waffle," an undulating criss-cross of red metal and glass, and according to Kahn it will be a restaurant inspired by architecture. We assume the name is an homage in part to the Björk album of the same name (all of Kahn's restaurant names have had musical references within). The Times reports that Kahn is planning a menu "loosely inspired by the music of John Cage, the manifestos of Moss and his own personal interest in astronomy."
Kahn has been known for many things over the years: He's worked at some of the most lauded restaurants in the country; he was the executive pastry chef for Michael Mina; he delivered some of L.A.'s most stunningly beautiful food at Red Medicine; he and his partners kicked an L.A. Times critic out of their restaurant and thwarted her anonymity; and most recently he's broken half the rules of the restaurant game in his opening of Destroyer, the breakfast and lunch restaurant across the street from Vespertine's forthcoming location. All of this now seems like an elaborate prequel to Vespertine, which could very well be the restaurant Los Angeles has long been waiting for.
Why would we need or want an insanely expensive, highly conceptual restaurant that seats only 22 people? Because while Los Angeles has been on the forefront of many international trends — the amazing-food-in-casual-locations trend being one of them — we have not had a landmark fine-dining restaurant, one that's truly unique, in a very long time. Our cutting-edge food tends to happen at ground level; our upscale restaurants are mostly fairly traditional, with only a handful of exceptions. As a result, we've been eclipsed in international and national competitions such as the World's 50 Best Restaurants. Michelin came to L.A. for a few years and then left. The dominant narrative is that L.A. is very good at food and not very good at high-end dining. Vespertine could change all that.
Destroyer, Khan's current project across the street from the forthcoming Vespertine
Even as I write these words, I have quibbles with many of the presumptions that underly the argument. In recent years, L.A. has had massive influence on American dining, and if anything we're on the cutting edge in our very rejection of stuffy expensive restaurants as the premier place to experience food culture. Nine days out of 10, I'd rather eat at Guerrilla Tacos than Alinea, and I'm grateful that some of our best high-end experiences — such as Trois Mec or Maude — are far more affordable and relaxed than similar restaurants in other cities. I'm not lying when I say I'd take L.A.'s dining scene over any other, anywhere in the world, despite (and in some ways because of) our disregard for pretentious, overpriced restaurants. Delicious weirdness flourishes here more readily than in other major cities, and I can't help but think that's in part because we don't hold ourselves to the same standards of Eurocentric fanciness as a measuring post of greatness.
But still. It's nice to have choices. And there's no denying that we've lacked a restaurant that puts outrageous artistic vision above all else, that's aimed so high there's no telling if it will work. New York, Chicago, San Francisco all have restaurants that draw travelers from all over the world just to experience something singular. L.A., for the most part, has stayed out of that game. Interestingly, the experience that probably comes closest in terms of ambition and purity of artistic intent is the slightly undefinable Wolvesmouth (I suppose supper club would be the closest definition), but because of chef Craig Thornton's lack of interest in having anything resembling a traditional restaurant, and because of the idiosyncrasies of obtaining an invite to Thornton's table, it remains an enigma rather than a marquee L.A. dining destination. Which is part of why we love it! But there's room in this city for something with more visibility.
And I have a lot of faith in Kahn's ability to provide something astonishing. It's possible Vespertine will be too precious, too pretentious, too expensive. But it's also possible it could put L.A. on the map at that worldwide level, become that once-in-a-lifetime experience, and garner us the kind of attention that's eluded us up until now. I hope we continue to pioneer in ways that come slightly more naturally to the city. But I'd like to hope there's room for all kinds of innovation here.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Los Angeles dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.