Dinner theatre used to mean theatregoers tucking into roast chicken as they watched a whodunit. Now, however, as good food becomes the norm and sophisticated diners seek experiences as well as just good food, creative restaurateurs are providing playful, engaging experiences, from mad-scientist ice creams to assemble-it-yourself meals. Tuck in: theatricality is the ingredient du jour.
The movement’s chefs include Catalan food designer Martí Guixé, whose work includes a candy restaurant in Tokyo where candy chefs wearing chef’s toques prepare entire candy-filled menus, and Dutch ‘eating designer’ Marije Vogelzang, who has created edible plates and dissolving crockery. Italian architecture studio Arabeschi di Latte has also become known for its interactive food experiences. A recent example, created for the 2009 London Design Festival, presented diners with a kit with which to prepare a chosen dish.
New players in the dinner theatre arena build on the trend’s primary elements of theatricality, interactivity and playfulness. British jellymongers Bompas & Parr are the creators, most recently, of The Complete History of Food, a pop-up event for cognac brand Courvoisier. The gastronomic adventure led guests through key periods in food history, including a scratch-and-sniff tv dinner and a recreation of a Victorian-era celebration.
Play and experimentation are also behind Chin Chin Laboratorists, a nitrogen ice cream parlour in London. Customers choose from flavours such as basil and violet, then watch the wisps of smoke rise as the ice cream is frozen on the spot with liquid nitrogen. Beakers and test tubes in the industrial space convey the mad-scientist vibe of the place.
Pablo Flack and David Waddington run an east London restaurant and cabaret, Bistrotheque. The pair have also hosted Studio East Dining, a pop-up restaurant that was held in a series of custom-built pavilions perched on the roof of a building site in Stratford, greater London. A previous event, The Reindeer, welcomed 12,500 guests in a room decorated with oversized snowflakes by set designer Gary Card.
New dinner theatre experiences such as these often incorporate collaborations with the art and design world to offer multiple levels of theatricality, amazement and just plain ‘wow’. Bistrotheque has worked with architect David Kohn, illustrator Will Broome and fashion designer Giles Deacon on previous projects, for example.
The new dinner theatre goes beyond the sugar rush of pop-up theatricality, however, and all brands should conjure up elements of stagecraft for their guests.
‘There are certain restaurants that use theatricality in the structure of their everydayness,’ Waddington says. ‘All the waiters behave gracefully – there’s a sort of precision, like the way a dancer would move through a space. You build a cast from the front-of-house people, and you have some personalities adding to the idea that you’re in something that’s not quite the everyday.’
The new dinner theatre is not always about the obvious performance, then, but about celebrating the experience of food and eating, from the opening scene through to the very last act.