The Union Oyster House, established in Boston in 1826, is the nation's oldest continually operating restaurant. Over the years, it’s attracted some very famous patrons, including Daniel Webster, who famously downed dozens of oysters with his tumblers of brandy and water, and the Kennedy clan, who dined here so often that JFK’s favorite booth was dedicated to his memory. These very important patrons came for the famous steaks, oysters and baked beans—and, of course, the free toothpicks, a restaurant standard that’s said to have originated here.
These days, restaurants need to offer more than complimentary toothpicks to attract a V.I.P. clientele. According to Annika Stensson, a spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association, more top-end restaurants are promising lavish experiences in order to distinguish themselves in a crowded field. “Restaurants are adding spectacle, something that brings a value-added dimension to eating,” she says. “Meals cannot just cater to your mouth anymore. It’s sights, sounds, interactions. It’s all part of our multitasking culture.”
The gimmick-restaurant trend has given us some cheesy, decidedly middle-brow examples. But poke fun at the Hard Rock Café and Planet Hollywood all you want. These days, sophisticated eaters are just as guilty of demanding a multitasked dining experience—if not ambitiously more so. Whether it’s to dazzle work partners and clients, or impress friends and loved ones (or, let’s face it, merely to keep from getting bored with the same silverware and white tablecloths), they’re less content to dine in quiet discretion. Diners today crave flamboyant options.
“Restaurants are no longer just places. Now they are scenes,” says Tim Zagat, head of the eponymous restaurant guide empire. Candlelit French bistros and Italian ristorantes are increasingly old-fashioned and clichéd; diners and daters are hungry for flashier, more exotic culinary experiences.
“Even a place that is part of the national culture almost—like Tavern on the Green in New York, even a place like that is basically just about the scenery and not about the food,” Zagat says.
In some cases, over-the-top restaurants are opened specifically for the show. The Four Seasons hotel chain, for example, is said to lose money on its restaurants. They’re part of the whatever-you-wish-at-your-service prestige; they add value to the brand as a whole.
Such splash doesn’t come cheap. According to Zagat, opening a mega-restaurant can cost upwards of $10 million. To guarantee the steady stream of patrons that’s required to recoup these massive cash outlays, they have little choice but to offer some kind of spectacle. Look no further than the celebrity chefs whose restaurants are inside Las Vegas casinos. More than just eateries and gambling dens—together, they become entertainment experiences.
But one man’s dining spectacle is another man’s garish stage show. Says Zagat, “Every one of us has different needs for different nights [and] people are starting to realize that their dinner can be an event, a spectacle. And restaurants are giving them what they want.”
In some cases, the staff themselves are part of the spectacle. When diners go to Ninja New York, ninja/waiters offer them two paths to their table. The first is simple and direct; the second is dark and dangerous, including tunnels and a drawbridge that only opens with a secret ninja command. The tasting menu can run a single diner $150.
That’s not the only restaurant where the wait staff serve double-duty as entertainers. The wine stewards at Aureole in Las Vegas are valued for more than their oenological skills. On tethers inspired by Tom Cruise’s high-wire heist scene in "Mission: Impossible", these so-called “wine angels” zip up and down a four-story Plexiglass-enclosed structure to fetch any one of the nearly 10,000 bottles on hand. Talk about spectacle.
These are but two examples of over-the-top spectacle that comes at no extra charge. Well, that’s not entirely true—these are not bargain meals. Everything has its price.