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Vespertine Is Not a Spaceship, It’s a Wizard’s Tower

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Is LA’s most talked-about new tasting menu actually a work of science fiction?

Photo courtesy of Vespertine

Vespertine, the new, sensationally performative, endlessly discussed fine dining restaurant from chef Jordan Kahn and his many high-profile collaborators, is supposedly a restaurant from outer space. Its soaring, undulating tower is a crashed space ship. The dishes obscured by colorful powders and tiny flowers are a feast from an alien civilization. The servers’ tunics recall extras in ’70s science fiction movies; the restaurant’s especially commissioned music is not unlike the obelisk’s dirge in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The meme of the Vespership began with Marian Bull’s profile of the project for GQ, where Kahn described the building as “a machine artifact from an extraterrestrial planet” that “creates its own gravity.” For the Los Angeles Times, Jonathan Gold recently described the experience as like “eating on Jupiter.” For LA Weekly, Besha Rodell called her first, less successful meal at the restaurant like “eating on another planet.” Eater has extensively investigated whether or not the restaurant is of this world. And Vespertine’s own press materials emphasize the transportive, otherworldy experience; architect Eric Owen Moss, whose work is perpetually transforming the entire neighborhood, known as the Hayden Tract, where Vespertine is located, describes his inspiration for the restaurant's building as “a ride on the steeds of Mars.”

But is Vespertine really science fiction? As a longtime fan (and sometimes writer) of science fiction and fantasy, I spend a lot of time thinking about genre, its boundaries and conventions. While entire books (and furious comment threads) have been written attempting to trace the divide between the two, the short answer is the genres’ boundaries are porous, but a story with spaceships is probably science fiction, and a story with wizards is probably fantasy. Popular works can sometimes mix both fantasy and science fiction with little complaint from audiences (see: our beloved national space wizard epic, Star Wars), but usually they’re forced to pick a side.

Often this comes down to a question of worldbuilding, the specific task of creating, populating, and iterating an entirely imaginary world, whether it’s a scientifically plausible interplanetary mission or an obsessively embroidered fantasy where every person born on Thursday can do magic. Ever since J.R.R. Tolkien, who invented entire languages for his Middle Earth, slagged his good friend C.S. Lewis for allowing Santa Claus to appear in Narnia (as recounted in critic Laura Miller’s wondeful The Magician’s Book), both fantasy and science fiction have privileged a certain conceptual rigor when making a world.

And approaching Vespertine as a ride on a spaceship reveals a number of worldbuilding flaws. Traversing its levels involves taking stairs outside, a lovely effect in Los Angeles but terrible in outer space. There is no takeoff, no self-sustaining greenhouse, no dehydrated food, no air filtration, no engine, no danger, no destination. The open kitchen could be read as a navigation bridge, but that bridge keeps sending down tiny and expensive bites of food, instead of guiding us through the stars. Even if we are to understand Vespertine as a crashed alien spaceship, an ancient artifact staffed by acolytes, why does re-creating a half-understood alien culture involve serving dinner? Where’s the insane, forbidden alien tech; the world-destroying secret it hides; the hologram telling us how it all ended? From its rustic stoneware to its hand-spun napkins, the restaurant, outside of the vaguely modernist food, is almost anti-technological.

The garden.
Photo by Jeff Elstone courtesy of Vespertine

But what if Vespertine is not science fiction, but fantasy? Approaching the restaurant as a wizardly initiation makes the experience narratively cohesive. Diners are visiting a small, half-forgotten kingdom, where, for a price, they may feast in a wizard’s tower. The many tunic-wearing servers and hosts are perfect wizards’ apprentices; the first courses, served outside in a garden, are the seduction of many a fairy-tale woods. The dining room, all metal and ambient drone, the tables inscribed with images of an eclipse, is pure dark magic. At one point during my dinner, Culver City’s robust flock of crows beat their wings against the orange sunset as, on the opposite side of the tower, a pollution-red full moon rose above the smog. Later, our table toasted four low, clear bowls of milky juice, and then raised four bloody glasses of skin-contact wine to our mouths, a coven sealing the ceremony.

The disconcerting aspects of my dining experience are more acceptable if they’re all part of a magic spell. I had a vivid, acute moment of despair when I realized the dirge-like music of the dining room followed me to the bathroom, as if it were clouding my thoughts and senses. The amounts of food, and what we were eating, were sometimes delightfully obscured, sometimes just plain mysterious, as if we were consuming substances we might not want to recognize. Out in the garden again, it was unclear if we’d been in the tower for hours, or days, or years. The sense of disorientation persisted long after the meal had ended: That night, I dreamed I was trying to help a wizard stop a breach in the fabric of our reality, and as hands slithered out of walls, it was clear I’d done a terrible job.

Switching genres undermines the restaurant's claims of disruption, perhaps, since that word is so currently tied to our visions, good and bad, of the future, but it does nothing to undermine its otherworldly affect. And fantasy is the real business of Los Angeles. There is another wizard associated with Culver City: Oz. The 1939 film was shot on what is now the Sony Pictures lot, then owned by MGM. Its munchkin villages and tornados and yellow brick roads were constructed inside sound stages that still stand today, just a few miles from Vespertine. Oz himself was just a main behind the curtain, a potent metaphor for all of America’s flim-flam magic. But the movie itself is a potent work of American fantasy, and there is a certain power in inhabiting the place where it was made.

Maybe, then, it’s appropriate that Kahn’s restaurant suggests both the transcendence of art and the artifice of a set. At Vespertine, the planet you journey to is not a real one, but it is one purely of the wizard’s own creation.

Meghan McCarron is a senior editor at Eater.