Step Inside the Growing World of Immersive Dining That Proves 'All the World's a Stage'
Dinner theater reaches the next level when you and your food are part of the show.
It's 1977. Gas costs 65 cents a gallon, Star Wars just hit the big screen and Jimmy Carter is in the Oval Office. The mood is coke-fueled and carefree, but there's something dark and sinful bubbling beneath the surface. Could it be... chocolate fondue?
Enter Safehouse ‘77, a new, intimate, fully immersive dinner theater show in Los Angeles, which takes audiences back to a time when the issue of women's rights was almost as big of a national conversation as it is today. Walk through the doors of the two-bedroom Hollywood Craftsman and you'll step right into a fondue party set in the 1970s, where actors mingle with guests over snacks, the likes of which haven’t been seen in years.
It's just one of a whole slew of immersive dining experiences that have been popping up and gaining traction recently, tearing down the "fourth wall" between audiences and performers and forcing them to interact with each other as part of a larger narrative. Yes, dinner theater has been a thing in this country since at least the 1950s, but the meal-as-entertainment concept has evolved to bring audiences right into the action—and usually with an undercurrent of mystery.
In Safehouse ‘77, which touches on themes of paranoia and uncertainty, every detail — from the refreshments to the floral resin toilet seat — is era-appropriate. Between drinks and bites of food, guests unwittingly become part of an elaborate story involving the Equal Rights Amendment, foreign spies, and LSD — all in an effort to see if they can pass a test and become CIA agents. While the acting is great, the breakout star of the six-member ensemble cast is arguably the Chex Mix, which is part of a totally groovy 1970s-inspired spread that also includes cocktail weenies and aforementioned fondue. In the program notes, creator and director Nick Rheinwald-Jones boldly declares, "This show combines two of my greatest loves: spy movies and Chex Mix." In fact, he's so serious about the signature seventies snack that he hand-assembles it himself before every performance, in which he also appears as one of the main characters.
Things get even more experimental in The Willows, another new Los Angeles-based dinner show. This one weaves a haunting tale of a highly dysfunctional family into the labyrinthine halls of a 10,000 square-foot Hancock Park home. Picture yourself being hooded, kidnapped and dumped into an eerie old mansion, where you're required to eat at a dinner table with seven creepy characters and less than 20 other audience members. That's essentially the premise of this two-hour psychological thriller from founder Justin Fix, who created the series with one objective in mind: "Our goal has been a simple one, to bring a uniquely interactive theatrical experience to Los Angeles that isn’t based on smoke and mirrors or cheap screams, but experiences based on well-scripted, well-acted and well-designed immersive theater," he says in a statement. "Guests that attend our shows become characters in the scenes where not even I know how it will turn out sometimes. In my opinion, it’s the best type of theatre, the unpredictable type."
At Dinner Detective, which made its debut in Los Angeles back in 2004 and now has more than 50 locations around the country, the approach is simple: seated audiences of up to 100 are served four-course meals as improv actors bring a whodunnit-type story to life. And at Los Angeles Eats Itself, a dinner series produced by art professor Jason Keller, "where cuisine and L.A. noir merge like freeway onramps into a savory digestible history," guests can retrace some of the most sordid stories in the city's recent past, including a Night Stalker Supper and Black Dahlia Dinner, along with a culinary tribute to Heidi Fleiss and the White Bronco Brunch, which recalls O.J. Simpson's infamous slow-speed chase through Los Angeles.
It stands to reason that in a city devoted to the art of performance, theater wouldn't just weave its way into the dinner, but that diners themselves would want to play along. The trend is picking up steam outside of L.A., too, however, even if it takes a slightly different form. Story Course NYC, for example, produces a limited-run series of dinners like How Do You Hug a Tiger?, in which chef Jae Jung recounts an emotional journey from Korea to the U.S. using both words and food. Similarly, Katrina Jazayeri and chef Joshua Lewin present different narratives that are thoughtfully paired with the cuisine at their restaurant Juliet in Somerville, Massachusetts. Here, guests participate by eating along, instead of actually playing along.
So why has immersive dining, in all its variations, become so popular of late? For one, good food is so omnipresent these days that it's not enough to simply sit down at a restaurant and have a good meal. When anything and everything is available at the inevitable food hall that's taken over your lunch break, or better yet, can be delivered straight to your door, you're going to look for new ways to make eating out more of an experience. What's more, it offers a few hours of escapism, and a concurrent chance to eat your feelings — two selling points the whole country could use these days.