When Courtney Nichols set out to throw the dinner party/rave/immersive theater project that became Disco Dining Club, she had role models.
Among her influences: Indochine, the New York Asian-fusion joint and clubhouse that once catered to the Warhol crowd. Peak-era Formosa Café in Hollywood, back when Frank Sinatra was drowning there in want of Ava Gardner. Maybe throw in some Versailles and Weimar-era Germany on an underground club promoter salary.
“We wanted it to be like a Peggy Guggenheim party without all the trust funds,” Nichols said, of the New York art world doyenne whose collection of Picassos and Miró’s were only rivaled by her myriad sensory appetites.
On the third anniversary of her party (which hits the Mid-Wilshire Art Deco Building this Saturday), she’s clearly off to a good start.
At a time when underground nightlife is faced with mounting pressures to stay afloat, be it soaring rents or increased scrutiny placed upon do-it-yourself venues in the wake of 2016’s tragic fire at underground Oakland art space Ghost Ship, it’s harder than ever to throw the kind of rough-and-tumble, shoestring-budget events where culture takes shape.
So Nichols went hard the other direction — throwing parties in the glitziest on-the-grid spaces she could find, with menus of caviar, oysters and champagne. She built on themes ranging from gay bathhouses to Russian royalty. Dinner usually comes with some kind of left-field theater or a sweat-it-out ‘70s dance party with DJ’s like Mike Simonetti, Masha and In Flagranti.
It has the heart of an after-hours club but revels in the gilded decadence most below-radar nightlife is out to destroy.
“There’s so much exceptional [nightlife] talent here, like A Club Called Rhonda and Making Shapes,” Nichols said. “But after Ghost Ship, people just don’t want to take that risk any more. That’s what I missed, music in diffuse spaces. You need a narrative to get people to leave the house today, but you can’t be smelling car exhaust while eating caviar.”
Nichols is a local clubland fixture, usually easy to spot across any crowded room with her shock of pastel hair and an interestingly cut dress. Her fascination with disco culture extends far beyond the music, into the ways the genre blended scenes and identities and gave clubbers permission to test their limits (a favorite reference text is Albert Goldman’s 1978 photo tome “Disco”).
She always threw a good shindig, starting with her earliest proto-DDC parties in her West L.A. backyard. But the night she made the series official, she brought a gussied-up crew of late-night regulars to Cliff’s Edge in Silver Lake. What had been intended as a genial night out with small-plates and champagne quickly escalated.
“People showed up in full regalia and by the end of the night they were having sex in the bathrooms,” Nichols said.
Clearly, she was onto something.
L.A. has an almost unnavigable bounty of good food, and a dance music scene in flux but also in abundance. Yet no one had really paired the two in a way that starts with a long dinner and ends the next day with your hair a mess and your tights ripped up the side.
So began her wink-wink-nudge-nudge (but not at all, really) vision of supper-club indulgence for the L.A. avant-garde. Disco Dining Club isn’t cheap (tickets for Saturday start at $100 and go up to $250). But that’s all-in for everything, including (at the VIP level), a multi-course meal from Bistro LQ’s Laurent Quenioux, enough oysters to drag down a small yacht and a long-form set from French disco mainstay Joakim.
Is it a weird time for her to dive into the aesthetic and gustatory signifiers of the ultra-rich? Disco scholars will note it’s no coincidence that the scene arose in the ‘70s, a time of distrust in government, crumbling cities and post-Vietnam cynicism that yielded some of the most unabashedly joyful music and righteously decadent nightlife.
So maybe the timing is perfect. In today’s divisive climate, there’s some sanctuary in walling off the bad news for a night and surrounding oneself with finer things.
“I can say without a shred of doubt that people need this right now,” Nichols said. “I met my boyfriend here. I’ve put my blood and sweat into this concept, and right now especially, people still need to know that this life can exist.”
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Disco Dining Club: Hall of Mirrors
Where: The Art Deco Building, 5209 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
When: 7:30 p.m. Sat.
For breaking music news, follow @augustbrown on Twitter.