Soul Food

On a recent weeknight, a private dinner party was in full swing at the Dakota restaurant in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. About 30 young guests bellowed between bites of filet mignon as conversation at one table careened from surfing to N.Y. nightlife before skidding to world hunger.

Yes, world hunger.

“Hi. Are you familiar with Oxfam?” The nonprofit organization’s representative alit from table to table like a ladybug.

Charity events, typically as bloated and formulaic as studio action pics, are going indie and underground. No more banquet halls, bulging gift bags and acidic Chardonnay. The new benefit often takes place at a private home or swank restaurant, with wine pairings and vintage cognac nightcaps (courtesy of Moet Hennessy, which has sponsored a series of these intimate charity dinners).

“It’s not about donations,” says Jennifer Howell, founder of the Art of Elysium, which pairs artists with at-risk children. “We’re looking to build troops in the community who will support us.” Her org hosted a private dinner for 30 industry insiders at the home of producer Mark Amin last month.

“You know that people came because they care about the cause,” says Amin. “Not because they want to be seen.”

Clearly, this shift is a response to the cavalcade of mega-events on any given night. (Note to benefit planners: Those interminable live auctions, in which moguls avoid auctioneers’ predatory gazes, are often more deterrent than draw.) Solicitous speeches can sometimes feel sanctimonious and impersonal, too.

“Imagine having Bill Clinton come over to your table to sit down and talk versus hearing him speak in a concert hall of 1,000 people?” says manager Geyer Kosinksi, who attended the Oxfam dinner alongside hotelier Jason Pomeranc, Dolce & Gabbana PR director Ali Wise and China Chow, among others.

The new scaled-down model also allows organizers to play matchmaker with the seating plan. “If I know that a producer is casting a movie, I will seat an actress at the same table,” says Ashlee Margolis of event planning firm the A List, who came up with the charity dinner idea for client Moet Hennessy. The company originally wanted to sponsor big parties to establish a presence in town.

Other companies are downsizing their social efforts, too. Mobile phone service provider Helio and local oenophile group Women & Wine have similar charity dinners on the calendar.

Pass the world peace, please.

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