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Do Restaurants Make Good Theater?

As big-money restaurants become more self-consciously dramatic, is dinner morphing into dinner theater? Writer Bob Morris reports.

The hosts at the top of the stairs at Nobu Fifty Seven in New York City stood like ushers in a theater. Alas, there were no seats at the sushi bar and no standing room either. But before retreating downstairs to the exit, my niece Madeleine and I paused to take in the scene.

Designed by David Rockwell, who has also—perhaps not coincidentally—created sets for such Broadway shows as Hairspray and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, the space was a seductively lit black box large enough to require opera glasses to see all the diners seated on the two levels. What a spectacle! Abalone-shell chandeliers, Japanese rope panels and columns of sake barrels towering to the ceiling! It was a little Madame Butterfly and a little Miss Saigon, with a dash of Blade Runner too. We left through a walnut door resembling a gnarled tree.

’Wow,’ said Madeleine, a well-traveled Manhattan teenager. ’That was intense.’

Indeed. But then, these days it seems that every other new restaurant has been set, lit and costumed as if for a culinary Cirque du Soleil. Katsuya in Los Angeles, Carnivale in Chicago and Buddakan in New York City all present themselves as high-end, high-drama dining for sophisticated urban audiences.

’Public space is about spectacle,’ says Rockwell, whose other restaurant designs include Café Gray in Manhattan and Emeril’s in New Orleans. ’And there’s always been a relationship between restaurants and theater,’ he adds. So much so that he likens a restaurant’s entrance to a curtain that rises when a show is ready to begin. And the menu? That’s the Playbill, of course. I was trying to explain some of this to Madeleine as we walked from Nobu Fifty Seven to Quality Meats, another chic new restaurant in midtown.

’A lot of restaurants don’t just want to be restaurants anymore,’ I told her.

’What do they want to be then?’ she asked.

’Entertainment. Restaurants are the new theaters.’

She raised an eyebrow and lowered her voice.

’Why would anyone go to a restaurant for theater?’ she asked.

It wasn’t a bad question. But it was getting late and time for dinner.

At Quality Meats, we passed through a butcher-shop facade that could have been on the Paramount lot in Hollywood. Inside, we walked past an eerily lit white plaster bull’s head in the foyer and eyeballed old butcher scales holding votive candles on the walls. It was all very stylish, as imagined by the architecture and design firm Avroko, although perhaps not entirely subtle. I mean, were those really meat hooks being used as chandeliers above our table? At least we didn’t have meat cleavers on the wall like in other rooms. And why did it seem that every person at every table was dramatically lit as if for a soliloquy?

’This is cool,’ Madeleine said. ’But isn’t it kind of weird eating on a stage set?’

Maybe. But she’d better get used to it. Like jukebox musicals and Cameron Mackintosh extravaganzas, spectacle dining is a trend that’s here to stay.

’Entertainment is now the primary force of modern life,’ says Neal Gabler, author of Life: The Movie and a new biography of Walt Disney. ’So we live in a society where everyone wants to be onstage 24 hours a day. It’s life as performance art.’

Of course, if a restaurant wants to be a spectacle, the food had better be spectacular—and in the most theatrical of ways. Witness, for instance, Morimoto in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. Masaharu Morimoto (one of Food Network’s Iron Chefs) has on the menu a toro tartare accompanied by a spectrum of colorful condiments (avocado sauce, sour cream, micro shiso, wasabi) arranged in a way that makes eating them as challenging as understanding a Tom Stoppard play. Easier to handle, but equally theatrical, is a brick of wagyu beef with a soft-cooked egg baked into a wheel of cauliflower flan.

When restaurant critic Frank Bruni of the New York Times reviewed Morimoto, he wrote that many dishes were actually ’more amusing to behold than ingest.’ Perhaps Morimoto’s management should have put as much consideration into the menu as it did the decor. The fluttering red traditional noren curtain out front, for instance, is the largest of its kind in the world, management claims, and it lets you know you’re walking into a major production number. Architect Tadao Ando’s set—rippling translucent walls, billowing canvas on the ceilings, walls of water bottles, an illuminated downstairs bar and cement stairs where perfectly thin diners walk as if choreographed by Twyla Tharp—sets the stage as a postmillennial Pacific Rim dreamscape. Then there are the bathrooms. Framed by mirrors of cherry-blossom branches that are part Kabuki, part Chekhov and part Robert Wilson, toilet lids rise up on their own as if in Mary Poppins. ’All these new restaurants are like Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, aren’t they?’ says playwright Paul Rudnick, who prefers to eat with colleagues in simpler places with basic food, like Joe Allen or Angus McIndoe, both in Manhattan’s theater district. ’And just like audiences, when diners spend that kind of money, they’re looking for visible results in the food and the design. They want more bang for their buck, I guess.’

Not that this is entirely new. Remember singing waiters? Dinner theater? Playful sushi chefs? The Hard Rock Cafe when it was cool? The staff of Benihana behaving like acrobats and the Reagan-era trophy-wife culture of conspicuous display that took power dining to new levels? Not long ago, Rocco DiSpirito even made opening a restaurant into a reality-TV show called, not unsurprisingly, The Restaurant. The idea was that there would be heavy drama behind the scenes and at the tables. But as the project failed as both television and a place to get a pleasant Italian meal, insiders found it to be more like high comedy than drama.

’Some people like to go to theme restaurants,’ chef Mario Batali, of Manhattan’s Babbo, sniffed at the time. ’But my kind of restaurant is all about eating, not entertainment.’ Even David Rockwell now sees the valor in discretion. ’You don’t want an environment that tells the whole story,’ he says. ’If it’s all spectacle, it’s going to be a pretty empty experience. There has to be room for you.’

I have to say that I’m with Rockwell. Not that I don’t like imaginative food and design. But I’m just not a theme-park kind of guy, I guess. Sure, Madeleine and I liked the clever theatrical touches of Quality Meats. We even applauded our server when she prepared our steak sauce, snipping fresh herbs and mixing them tableside with the finesse of a magician. But the best parts of the night were the simple steak and our own conversation.

When Madeleine and I stepped outside and walked toward Central Park South after dinner, we felt relieved. It was nice to be in our own play rather than someone else’s. The lights of Broadway were illuminating the sky, and a full moon, big as a spotlight, was rising over midtown.

’I liked that place; it was very Sweeney Todd,’ Madeleine said as we strolled. ’The lighting was subtle, the set had edge and the costumes were appropriate for a slaughterhouse kind of vibe. I’m just glad the waiters didn’t have blood on their butcher’s aprons.’

Me too. Even at a steak house with meat-hook chandeliers, that would have been too dramatic.

Bob Morris is the Age of Dissonance columnist for the New York Times Sunday Styles section.

Published March 2007
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