By Allison Levine, Foodable Contributor
As dining out becomes a daily occurrence, what draws a customer to one restaurant over another? Is it the food, the décor, or the service? Perhaps it’s the overall experience which is then reported back to friends. With the influence of social media, diners love to share what they are experiencing on Instagram, Facebook, Periscope, Twitter, and Snapchat. Usually the photos of a beautifully plated dish will represent the experience. However, some restaurants are taking the dining experience to a more experiential level and incorporating theatrical elements. No longer is dining out simply sitting at a table with your friends and having a conversation.
Theatrical dining is not a new concept. Italian pizza restaurant Miceli’s has the singing waiters and The Magic Castle offers roaming magicians and magic shows. There is also Medieval Times where men, dressed as knights, joust and brandish weapons as diners eat and cheer on the knights. But food is not the primary focus when a diner goes to one of these venues. They go for the entertainment and for the overall experience. Yet, there are experiential dining experiences in Los Angeles that are raising the bar and going beyond performance dining. Theatrical elements are brought into the modern dining environment to enhance, not overshadow, the food.
Teppanyaki is the style of cooking dishes, like steak and shrimp, on an iron plate in the middle of a table. It is a Japanese steakhouse. It was made famous by the Benihana restaurant chain that showcased chefs performing for diners. The chef juggled utensils, caught an egg in his hat, or flipped a shrimp tail into his shirt pocket. This form of “dinnertainment” wowed guests. Roku, located on the Sunset Strip, offers three distinct dining opportunities for guests who dine there. There is a sushi bar, a main dining room that offers a selection of modern Japanese cuisine, and the teppanyaki room. The Cardenas brothers who own Roku, among other restaurants, had always talked about doing a teppanyaki restaurant and at Roku they are raising the standard of what we have come to know as teppanyaki. The quality of ingredients is elevated, offering A-5 Japanese Wagyu, Matsusaka beef, Santa Barbara spot prawns, and more. Although not a traditional steakhouse, Roku teppanyaki appeals to steak lovers as they sit in a communal setting, among friends or strangers. Guests watch the food being cooked but it is less about the show and more about the presentation with the chef bringing diners together.
It’s not unusual to hear the lyrics from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” in your head when walking into Barton G on La Cienega Boulevard. “Come with me and you'll be in a world of pure imagination. Take a look and you'll see into your imagination.” The unique menu at Barton G is intended to draw out the playful side of epicurism while exploring fantasy and imagination. The presentation of each dish is more than a plate being served. When the Holy Smokes Popcorn comes to the table, using nitrogen it pops in front of the diners’ eyes as the aromas of bacon and white truffle fill the air. Or the Devil’s Egg, white truffle whipped deviled eggs, togarashi bacon crumble, crisp garlic, fresh black truffles, and garden herbs, which are served in a cage with a large wooden chicken. Even the cocktails are a visual delight — a filled martini glass is served with a liquid nitrogen popsicle. The popsicle, which is the alcohol, is placed in the glass and, as it melts, the drink gets stronger and stronger. The presentation is whimsical but the quality of food is not sacrificed. Once the pictures are taken and the “oohing” and “aahing” subsides, the quality of the food and flavors are what leaves a lasting impression.
Challenging The Senses
Opaque: Dining in the Dark
While visual stimulation is what many restaurants incorporate to enhance the dining experience, the opposite is true at Opaque. For the length of the dining experience, guests abandon their vision to sit and eat in complete darkness. This is a unique sensory awareness experience. Guests are given the option to select items from the menu before entering the dark dining room, but 80 percent of people choose to be surprised with the dishes they are served. What makes Opaque in Los Angeles distinctive is that all of the servers are visually impaired. Server Michael Headley, a U.S. veteran, lost his sight 10 years ago to glaucoma. He never thought he would get another job but while training at the Braille Institute, he learned about Opaque. Server Michael comes out into the bar waiting area and tells guests to put a hand on his shoulder and each guest puts a hand on the next person’s shoulder and follows him. He winds around a few poles, leading guests to their tables. Guests are immediately out of their comfort zone as they feel around for the table and chairs and then are guided as to where the silverware and glasses are on the table. The three courses of food are good but nothing exceptional. However, the focus is on eating in the dark. Can your fork find the food and then find your mouth? With no context to the space, guests will hear other diners’ conversations and fully engage in their own. It is an unforgettable evening that challenges the senses and Dining in the Dark gives guests a firsthand appreciation for those living without vision.
From interactive dining situations to unique presentations, many restaurants are engaging all of a diner’s senses. These experiences are not elongating the dining experience, but rather enhancing them in one way or another and making them more memorable.