High End Edible Marijuana
Drew Swantak/Thrillist
Drew Swantak/Thrillist

Marijuana Restaurants Might Change the Way Our Country Looks at Pot

The eyes of the guests tend to linger on fire, roasting their anticipated fifth course -- it's a natural reaction. It might also have to do with the fact that everyone at the table happens to be thoroughly roasted, themselves. And it's because of the food.

Inside the basement dining room, 10ft beneath a nondescript Brooklyn warehouse, the air is getting as thick as the laughter echoing around the tiled walls during a high-end cannabis dinner -- even though the quality of jokes hit a sheer drop.

"Where there's smoke, there's fire… right?" cracks a voice, the owner's calligraphed place-setting labeled "Stringer Bell" (wasn't him).

He nods to the skeleton crew of white-coated chefs skating back and forth in front of the simmering steak. Spirits are high. So are the diners; piggybacking on that smoky, hot-off-the-blowtorch beef aroma is the smallest, teeniest, just barely detectable note of an extremely high-quality, incredibly potent strain of marijuana. Girl Scout Cookies, for the connoisseurs. The rib-eye (pictured above) and all four previous courses were infused with the strain. As were the complementary cocktails. As is dessert. This probably explains the cheaper-than-usual laughs.

The relevance of edible marijuana, especially high-end options, could be the final straw (or spliff?) that breaks prohibition's back.

One hour earlier, chef Miguel Trinidad, of the East Village's celebrated Filipino restaurants Jeepney and Maharlika, asked the room if they'd had a bad experience with edibles. Every hand in the room went full mast -- some, with considerable conviction. But by the end of the night, the majority of those hands were digging into second courses of cannabis-infused bone marrow with an Andy Dufresne-like vigor.

Food is the one passion that's also an obligation. It's the great equalizer between all people not hooked up to an IV. And experiencing marijuana through food is nothing new. But the relevance of edible marijuana, especially high-end options, could be the final straw (or spliff?) that breaks prohibition's back. It could mean legalization. It could signify a safe, reliable, and -- perhaps most importantly -- insanely enjoyable modus operandi to getting baked. It could even help deliver the unthinkable: a fully legal weed restaurant.

Then again, it could be the liability that shatters the entire movement, due to people -- for lack of a better phrase -- getting too damn high. Exhibit 1: Maureen Dowd, the New York Times columnist whose experience freaking out in a hotel room has become a punchline, but remains a too-common reflection of people eating too much pot and ending up paranoid and in the hospital.

Which side will be left standing when the smoke clears? The answer may lie within the courses of Trinidad's dinner, and more importantly, within the experiences of the guests. Are forks and knives the new bongs and bowls? They damn well could be. And it might be essential that they are, if cannabis in America is going to go mainstream.

steak tartar
Drew Swantak/Thrillist

The state of marijuana and food, right now

Something you should probably know: these dinners are 100% illegal -- hence the fake names and clandestine location. Trinidad and 99th Floor -- the line of high-end edibles that sponsors these dinners -- are understandably coy about their legal situation, but they aren't the pioneers of the concept. They're not even the first to do it in New York City. Yet so far, there have been no major busts. 

The movement is and has been happening in cloak-and-dagger kitchens across the country. In legal states and illegal states, people are eating weed at record rates, in the form of high-end infused dining experiences and store-bought edibles. Dispensaries in CO are claiming 60% of their total revenues comes from edibles in a state that legalized recreational sales in 2014. In Colorado alone, recreational marijuana sales approached an ice-cold $1 billion in 2015, according to the State Department of Revenue. That would mean edibles could and should be generating approximately $498 million. Per year.

The future of weed doesn't solely revolve around or hinge on edibles. But, they're primed to play a major role in pot's encroaching osmosis into mainstream America -- more importantly, they could be the linchpin in breaking the blown-glass ceiling of legalization in the first place. 

At Trinidad's dinner, the guests initially tease at the edges of the stunningly plated steak tartare, the first course, almost as if they're afraid to ruin a work of art. When they finally bite, some comment aloud on the taste. The weed hues are subtle, but there. By the time their first plates are cleared, almost half the diners have drained their complementary cannabis mojitos.

The movement has already started... so have the effects of the dinner.

bone marrow
Drew Swantak/Thrillist

Communal experiences

For the uninitiated, consuming cannabis orally is a little different than smoking a joint or bong or bowl or vape. The THC takes about 30-60 minutes to digest and drift into the bloodstream. At Trinidad's dinner, the words "chill" and "relaxing" and "body high" are repeated as the effects take hold. They say it feels more social. Shared.

Sounds nice, right?

Even in states where recreational pot and edibles are legally sold, consuming marijuana -- in any form -- is illegal on land that sells it, and in public places all together. Just like you aren't allowed to crack open your Jack or Jim at the liquor store, you don't spark up or dig in when you're still at the dispensary (or in the parking lot). You can invite your friends over for a big ol' pot potluck, but you sure as hell can't charge them. 

In Portland, OR -- a state where recreational use of marijuana is legal -- chef Leather Storrs of Noble Rot holds non-profit, cannabis-infused dinners like Trinidad, and donates the funds raised to charity. According to Storrs, even in a state where you can literally go to the store and buy an eighth of high-quality bud, the interest is still palpable.

"It's all about escaping this 'Cheech and Chong,' stoner persona. It's about putting together professional technique and the growing culture of weed here in Oregon and making something bigger than the sum of its parts," he says, after detailing his custom dishes like roasted lamb shoulder served aus ju and featuring cold-press cannabis oil. "Marijuana should be a social experience, and edibles may be the best way to make that shared, social experience happen."

Chefs like Storrs are elevating the edible marijuana trade, and people are beginning to understand how marijuana can function as a social, shared intoxicant.

Shortly after the second course of Trinidad's dinner (the bone marrow) is finished, the guests' increasingly glassy eyes begin scanning for the next course. Folks are letting loose, but no more so than if they'd just had a few glasses of good wine at a nice chef's tasting dinner. There's no stereotypical stoner talk... no references to munchies or Seth Rogen. One gets the sense that this communal-weed-dinner thing is more than a novelty, or publicity stunt. It's a way to make weed... normal

High-end edibles could normalize cannabis in ways smoking never could.

In essence, edibles may prove to be the most viable option for shared, controlled, and safe public consumption. These aren't crusty brownies in Ziplocs that you buy from your old bus driver in the Home Depot parking lot. Trust -- especially in the anxiety-ridden, black-lit unknown of the marijuana-sphere -- is key to acceptance. 

Acclaimed Chicago-based pastry chef Mindy Segal has a James Beard Award under her apron strings. She has a devoted following. She's also been involved in creating high-end edibles for several years, and believes establishing a sense of trust is the only key that can unlock acquiescence. 

"The plan here is to say, 'Look, I'm an award-winning chef, a known chef -- it's OK to eat this! It's done by a professional. It's a safe, legitimate way to experience this, without smoking,'" she says. "And I've never seen a greater, or more passionate response to cannabis than with my higher-end edibles."

"The act of breaking bread is a social experience in itself. It's just an overwhelmingly positive, different way to enjoy cannabis," she adds. "It might be safer for people, too -- that's very important."

High End Edible Marijuana
Drew Swantak/Thrillist

Effects aside, for medical, social, and practical reasons, edible marijuana presents an option potentially more palatable to consumers than puffing. With public smoking laws clamping down in unprecedented ways on public cigarette, cigar, and vaping options, it's not difficult to imagine marijuana smoke being lumped in with every other type of smoke. America's fight against public smoking may make edibles the face of modern, grown-up, acceptable marijuana use.

Not everyone will be willing to smoke. But everyone eats. Logically, the problem of consuming cannabis outside the home, in a social setting, can be solved only one way. Two of the most inherently (and cliche-spouting) bonding activities in modern culture -- breaking bread and sharing a communal joint -- combined in one culinary swoop: the weed restaurant.

Kyle Sherman, a cannabis advocate and owner of Colorado-based Flowhub -- a point-of-sale system designed specifically for dispensaries -- sees the marijuana cafe, or restaurant, as a realistic way for modern adults to consume cannabis outside their homes. And claims the support is waiting, if not patiently.

"While smoking lounges and things like that may be possible, something like a marijuana cafe, or marijuana eatery, might be a more viable and popular solution here," Sherman says. "It's something that's definitely illegal now... but it's something so many dispensaries and business owners would love to see. I definitely think it would only further the case for marijuana legalization and acceptance, and I think most people in the business think along these lines."

High End Edible Marijuana
Drew Swantak/Thrillist

Weed restaurants could be the answer

Maya Elisabeth is a seven-time Cannabis Cup champ and founder of Om Edibles, a Northern California company specializing in everything from tinctures to truffles. Recently, she partnered with Whoopi Goldberg to create a line of topical cannabis, specifically for menstruating women. She digs the idea of the pot restaurant, naturally.

"Marijuana is totally a social experience. It should be treated the same way that we treat alcohol -- being able to consume it in public, in a shared experience. Until it does, it will never be fully accepted," she says. "I fully believe in the implementation of a restaurant serving great edibles. I mean, wouldn't that be great?"

When you are making novel dishes like aged rib-eye decked out with cannabutter, or cannabis-infused dark chocolate brittle made with toffee, smoked almonds, and caramel (one of Mindy's, actually), you get intrigue before the promise of pot. This type of novelty can be especially appealing for a generation raised on marijuana of a lower caliber (read: baby boomers... which there are a lot of) who may be hesitant to dip their toes back into the habits of their youth.

But what might an actual marijuana restaurant look like at this hypothetical stage, when the only frame of reference we have is incognito dinners? 

"The logical first step might be a marijuana cafe-style set-up, connected to a dispensary," says Michael Bologna, cannabis advocate and founder of Green Lion consulting, a Colorado firm dedicated to serving cannabis-centric businesses. He cites Amsterdam's famed coffee shops as an example.

But for a sit-down, traditionally styled marijuana restaurant to function serving infused food beyond space cakes, having non-pot dishes on the menu would be a must -- to make sure people who don't indulge can enjoy themselves, and (maybe more importantly) to encourage a designated, non-stoned driver. In many ways, it would operate along the same trajectory as alcohol in restaurants.

"There are so many ways to infuse food with cannabis, you can make it work with almost any dish," says Trinidad. "As a chef, marijuana as an ingredient excites me. You can match flavors of strains to match and complement flavors of dishes. It can add another dimension to food -- it's like a whole new game for us… it would definitely thrive in a restaurant setting. I can see the weed restaurant taking over the world."

Putting out high-quality, edible marijuana is an integral cog to getting the common consumer into using marijuana in the first place, and in turn, vital to the overall acceptance of marijuana and the movement to have it legalized nationwide. Giving people a safe space to do so in the relaxed company of friends and family is a structural need if marijuana hopes to join alcohol on the pedestal of America's legal intoxicants. 

There's kind of a big caveat, though.

chocolate ice cream
Drew Swantak/Thrillist

Safety is a major concern, but there's an easy solution

"Moderation is so integral to enjoying the experience, the journey," Trinidad says. "I mean, we want people to have a good time, but we want to make sure people aren't leaving here falling on their asses."

In Trinidad's case, all the courses combined equal about 20mg of THC -- or the strength of one or two standard, store-bought edibles. During his dinners, Trinidad sets up his dishes so that guests feeling a little too airy can dial it back a bit. For example, he tells the guests to steer clear of the mole sauce that comes with the steak if they are feeling it a little too much. For those who want to continue their journey?

"Dig in," he says, with a blinding smile.

There is precedent to the moderation motif: the biggest source of negativity in Colorado's recent legalization experiment, are without doubt ripples from improper use of edibles, mainly by tourists and novice users (remember Dowd?).

"Legalization efforts are really at a turning point," says Bologna. "It's possible that edibles can make or break the movement. But it all starts with responsible use. That's the biggest issue here."

The public needs proper education to consume responsibly, but they won't get that education as long as marijuana remains an illegal, kind-of-illegal, or just-barely-legal entity, with struggling levels of regulation varying from state to state. It's a vicious, uncomfortably high cycle. 

This is why highly controlled zones of edibles (like the strict regulations in place in Colorado) and especially safe, controlled, public settings (weed restaurants!) to purchase and consume marijuana are, simultaneously, the weak link in the legalization chain and the anchor that may hold the movement in place one day. If people continue to value education, safe practices, and professionally curated edible experiences -- like Trinidad's -- the odds may land on the latter. 

High End Edible Marijuana
Drew Swantak/Thrillist

A taste of weed's future

In the end,  Trinidad's dinner is a microcosm of the whole issue, played out over five courses. The room is filled with folks of different ages, walks of life, and experience with cannabis -- all gathered together to share an experience of getting high. And it's working. This is not a group of cliche pot smokers. And it’s exactly what modern marijuana use should look like, if it ever hopes to become the new normal.

Through their pleasurable effects, safer-than-smoke ingestion, and potential to be consumed en masse in public, edibles represent the true torch-bearer of the legalization movement. Food is life. It's happiness. It's community and family and adventure. And it's perfectly apt to be combined with cannabis.

As one of the most senior, decidedly un-stoner-looking people present at the dinner (Stringer's wife, actually) finally polishes off her cannabis chocolate ice cream over the thumping beats of Kanye West ("No More Parties in LA," in case you were wondering), she states, matter-of-factly, that she feels like "... she just drank a big glass of wine that made me feel really, really, good."

Before the dinner, she admitted she couldn't even remember the last time she had any weed. Before she left, she assured the rest of the table she would be back again, next time.

Maybe one day soon, the rest of America will get to join her at the table.

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Wil Fulton is a staff writer for Thrillist. He's still kind of high. Follow him: @wilfulton.