Whether Los Angeles sensation Vespertine is in fact a spaceship or, more plausibly, a wizard’s tower, there’s no getting around the fact that it is, well, a restaurant. There’s a staff to hire, train, outfit, and retain; there’s a dining room to tend to; and there are customers to serve and, as its chef Jordan Kahn puts it, even please. “Obviously we want everyone to enjoy themselves,” he says.
Given the narrative surrounding the restaurant — a combination of self-created mythology and the media’s reactions to it — that desire to please might actually not be so obvious, at first. The restaurant’s marketing materials, for example, describe Vespertine as a “place of shadows and whispers,” a “gastronomical experiment,” serving cuisine “from a time that is yet to be.” The restaurant’s moody Instagram, moody website, and moody trailer seem designed to obscure.
But according to Kahn, all of that is intended to ease the guest into the Vespertine experience, specifically, his attempt to manage “the expectation of ‘I don’t really know what I am walking into,’” he says. The restaurant’s digital presence was created to “feel the least chef-y as possible and least restaurant-y as possible.”
So accepting, if at least for now, that Vespertine is a real restaurant, here are seven verifiably true things about it.
1. In context, the idea of the building having its own origin story isn’t all that crazy.
Much ado was made of the fact that Kahn told GQ’s Marian Bull, in an article that repeatedly refers to the restaurant as a “spaceship,” that he believed the Culver City building that houses Vespertine was “a machine artifact from an extraterrestrial planet that was left here like a billion years ago by a species that were moon worshippers,” and that the building “has its own gravity.” That’s pretty weird!
But in context, the idea that the building has an interesting story of its own isn’t so strange. Eric Owen Moss is one of the most accomplished architects working in LA right now; he has bent an entire neighborhood, the Hayden Tract, to his visual will.
“I drove down the street and saw this building, pulled over and I was floored,” Kahn says of Moss’s work. “It was this very powerful moment I won’t forget. I’ve said this a million times, but the closest thing I can describe it to is if you’ve ever visited the redwood forest, the giant sequoias — the first time you walk up to a giant sequoia in your life, you remember that moment. This thing had a consciousness. So I became obsessed, started researching this place, started calling and getting information about it. It was under construction, had a big sign up front that said, ‘For Lease.’ So I called.” It took Kahn 15 months to negotiate the lease.
Kahn emphasized how the building’s uniqueness influenced the restaurant. “Most restaurants, you get a black box... and you design around it and make it have a certain feel,” he says. “This place already had a feel; we were just responding to what it was really telling us... I can’t tell you how many times I would come home and say, ‘That place is seriously a living organism,’ because the architects and myself would try to do one thing and the building just wouldn’t let us.”
2. There’s a pants system.
The front of house staff at Vespertine wear black outfits designed by Jona Sees of the avant-garde label Inaisce. Custom-designed uniforms — and high fashion in general — isn’t generally size inclusive, but the uniforms at Vespertine are meant to accommodate a range of bodies.
“We designed [the uniforms] before we knew who we were hiring,” says Kahn. “We need to hire varying shapes and sizes, and [Sees] designed this pant system that’s totally crazy. At the bottom [they’re] the same [as regular pants]. Starting at the knee it tapers and has a series of pleats; it can fan way out, or tie around. Somebody with a size 28 waist and someone with a size 40 waist can wear the same pair of pants and look amazing.”
3. The bathroom has a soap situation.
There is no soap dispenser in the Vespertine bathroom, and figuring out how to wash your hands can feel like a test of your logical-thinking skill. To the left of the sink are a series of small vials with clear liquid. To the right, a bowl of perfectly untouched powder. More than one Eater editor hesitated. Spoiler alert: The bowl of manicured powder is soap.
“[Moss and I] were looking at fixtures for soap dispensers and hated all of them, they all looked too allmodern.com,” Kahn says. “I was thinking about the old Borax soap that my grandmother used to use, and I was like, ‘Why don’t we just use Borax soap from the 1960s?’ My brother and I used to play with it. But what’s neat about the Borax is it absorbs any kind of odor, so we mist the fragrance that we have for the restaurant [over it], and it totally changes the aroma.”
4. Yep, there’s also a fragrance situation.
That soap-scenting fragrance also scents the entire restaurant. Guests get a small sample of the custom scent to-go in a chic black box, and honestly it all feels Very Fancy. I get anise or fennel, black pepper, and warm, woody spice notes when I spray it on my wrists; another recent Vespertine guest described the scent “like a slightly inferior homemade pastis,” with licorice and coriander. But if it were an expensive perfume, I would consider buying it.
5. ... and a mouthwash situation.
The clear vials located next to the sink are, indeed, mouthwash. Made with clove, fennel, and witch hazel, Kahn says they’re meant to be gentle. They also create an operational challenge. “Every time a guest uses the restroom, we send somebody in after them to refresh it and make sure that all the vials are new and everything is clean,” he says. “We have like 50 vials set up before service. So whenever a vial is used, we remove it, replace it with a brand new one, and then at the end of the night we wash them all.”
6. Kahn is here for your dietary restrictions.
Kahn greets guests at the door and follows up regarding any notes from the reservation booking — he then ensures that the menu is adjusted to guests’ dietary restrictions: vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free. While his vision for Vespertine is ultra-specific, Kahn welcomes the challenge of adjusting the menu to the diner’s needs. “I would be super excited if someone only ate white[-colored food], that would be fucking killer,” he says. “A total white menu.”
And when asked if he was working toward not needing to greet every guest every night, Kahn quickly answered: “No, what would be the purpose of that?”
7. Vespertine might be Kahn’s last full-scale restaurant for a long, long time.
Kahn plans to provide food services for an office complex in the Hayden Tract, near Vespertine and his Nordic-influenced daytime restaurant Destroyer, but he’s not working on a big new project. “This is the most important thing that I will ever do in my entire career,” he says. “I can’t imagine working on anything else.”
“I’m just now getting comfortable with talking about what it is and how it came to be and what it represents and what it means to us,” he says. “It was very much the intention to not make it feel super restaurant-y so that whatever your expectations were, you knew that they were going to be met regardless of where you came from. It’s a living organism. We learn so much from this place every single day; it continues to evolve on a daily basis.”
Hillary Dixler Canavan is a senior editor at Eater.