In an industrial corridor outside Palm Springs, silent and still after most everyone had fled with the sunset, Grant Calkins and his wife, Janna, crept into a warehouse. They peered around, wondering if they were in the right place.
Grant had stumbled upon the website of an underground supper club, and, intrigued by photos of the group's previous gatherings, the couple paid nearly $100 each for seats at PS Underground's event. They had no inkling as to what or where they would be fed. They had received only a one-word clue: craft.
Just hours before the event in Thousand Palms, the Calkinses got an email with directions and a command: Do not Google the address.
As they followed the final steps on the directions, the couple grew only more perplexed. They drove through an area so desolate it seemed more like the place where James Bond would go to have a clandestine rendezvous than to sip a cocktail.
They entered the back of a building, where they were welcomed by imposing stainless-steel vats and valves. But a little farther in, there it was: a wooden farm table, decorated in autumn colors, with carnations and settings for 30.
The concept of the secretive supper club is driven by their exclusivity and intimacy, with nights that might involve a much-lauded chef or an unusual or surreptitious location. Some are centered on a theme (vegetarian Indian food) or a gimmick (make your own meals).
These culinary speak-easies have spread beyond the uber-trendy Westside and the tri-hipster area to places such as Palm Springs, where residents hope to get a taste of some fine dining. If that means driving to a dark, seemingly uninhabited location in a quest for a singular experience, then so be it.
Evolution of a party
In the cavernous Coachella Valley Brewing Co., the latest vision of Michael Fietsam and David Horgen was coming to life.
The Cathedral City couple had built a reputation among friends for evenings that weren't so much dinner parties as spectacles that came with a feast.
PS Underground came about when those friends encouraged them to expand their parties beyond their social circle. It would be like an intimate pop-up restaurant every month, invigorating the Palm Springs food scene for locals in search of something new.
"We didn't start this to make a lot of money or build a business," said Fietsam, 47, a hospitality consultant. "We wanted to spread our love of entertaining. That's more reward than anything else."
There's also the constant challenge of coming up with nights that will mystify and astound their guests.
They marked the 101st anniversary of the Titanic sinking by instructing guests to come dressed like aristocrats of the early 20th century. Dinner included roasted squab, wilted cress, asparagus with a Champagne saffron vinaigrette — the same menu served in the first-class dining room on the ship's final night.
They invoked 1960s Palm Springs with a night they called Nod to Mod and celebrated Halloween by eating roasted pumpkin risotto and herb-encrusted lamb as a woman was splayed across the table, playing dead.
"We think we can never pull it off," Fietsam said, "but it just seems to work."
As more guests wandered in from the desert night, they were greeted with a glass of craft beer, offered by the friends of Fietsam and Horgen who volunteer to pitch in.
Julie Warren and Shara Cabreros knew where they were headed as soon as they saw the directions. The couple, who moved to Palm Springs from Seattle nine years ago, are craft beer connoisseurs and knew the site of one of the area's few breweries.
"It's just kind of adventurous," said Cabreros, a 47-year-old school psychologist. "Instead of the same old restaurant, we get to go out and try something different. "
When PS Underground started off last year, the response was tepid. Now the events sell out within days. The craft brewery dinner was held on three nights, with each one capped at 30 guests.
Although they count on their friends' help on dinner nights, Fietsam and Horgen handle almost everything else from conception to cleanup. They spend days before cooking in a shared catering kitchen preparing the food.
Sense of mystery
The first course came with awkward introductions. But as the dinner progressed — to halibut, langoustine, scallops and black mussels, then on to Bleu d'Auvergne cheese fondue — the table warmed up. The conversations grew louder, the laughter echoing off the stainless steel.
"I've always said there's a point in the dinner, usually around the third or fourth course," Horgen said. "You can just tell everyone's having a good time, and that's when it becomes really rewarding."
As she savored the main course — slow-braised beef short ribs with creamy polenta, beer-braised Brussels sprouts and carrots — Gabriella Dyankowska also could see the same in the hosts.
"They glow! I don't know how else to say it," said Dyankowska, 45, a multimedia visual artist and a friend of the hosts. She had been to several of the gatherings.
"There's the unexpected element," she said of each event's mysteries, "but you can expect you're going to be taken care of, you'll get great food and you get to meet great people."
The table pressed Fietsam to tell them what to expect next month. He was reluctant. The one-word hint was supposed to be posted online in the morning, but he would let them in on it a little early.
They leaned in to hear.
"Wanderland," Fietsam said. (In a week's time, two nights — at $150 a person — had sold out.) "I can't tell you anything, except it won't be in just one location," he said, waving off their pleas for details.
He wanted them to head back out into the cool desert night, their stomachs full and their minds wandering, imagining what could possibly come next.