A New Take on Dinner Theater Prioritizes Good Drinks

Should we splurge on a $100 baked potato at 10 p.m. on a Monday night? It’s a question I ask my friend as we settle into a back banquette at New York’s scene-iest piano bar, The Nines. Despite the less-than-prime reservation time, the red-hued bar is packed. A table crowded with Gen Zers sings “Happy Birthday” to a friend, while at a nearby two-top, much older men work their way through the bar’s complimentary snacks: potato chips, olives and nuts, served in a caddy of crystal bowls. A pianist at the back of the room sets the sultry yet playful tone, seamlessly transitioning among jazz standards, classic rock and popular TikTok anthems, like Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets.”

Browsing the menu by flickering candlelight, there’s no question that we’ll be ordering the No. 9 Martini, the bar’s signature stirred combo of gin, vermouth and manzanilla served with a chilled sidecar to keep us going. We skipped the three-figure baked potato topped with caviar. Maybe next time.

In a pandemic-changed world of nightlife, where disco balls hang from nearly every ceiling, cocktails lean into nostalgia and every reservation is an opportunity to showcase an OOTD, the drink-and-a-show evening has also found an audience. “[It’s] transportive and brings guests to a time when going out was more of a celebration,” says Jon Neidich, chief executive of Golden Age Hospitality, which opened The Nines in 2021. “I think about café society culture, when going out was a big deal, people got dressed up a little more, it was an occasion.”  

The idea of a drink theater is nothing new. But unlike the previous generation of drink theater venues known to attract tourists, these new venues place food and beverage at their core, with the entertainment acting as a bonus. The genre’s revival also comes as we’re more eager to turn a night out into an event, and to order cocktails worth their inflation price tags

“People are really looking for connected experiences. Blending the drink, food, art and entertainment elements allows us to create a spontaneous, social, house party,” says Erica Norgaard, general manager and vice president of Superfrico, an “Italian American psychedelic” supper club on the Las Vegas Strip, complete with neon-clad dancers strutting across banquettes and cocktails by well-known bartender Leo Robitschek. “It’s all about creating an unexpected night full of surprises, punctuated with the perfect sip.”

In the Midwest, plenty of venues offer a drink-and-a-show experience to keep guests, who might not be keen to barhop in subzero temps, in one space all night. Consider Chicago’s Bordel, which serves high-end cocktails with a background of live burlesque, or Cincinnati’s Ghost Baby, which recently revived a historic venue, creating a contemporary cocktail program to pair with live piano. 

Back in Manhattan, at Bo Peep, a dimly lit basement bar beneath The Ragtrader, servers take an intermission from shuttling highballs and spritzes to sing along with the pianists, while guests routinely join in as well. Those eager to perform can also be found at Dr. Clark, a Lower East Side restaurant serving food from Japan’s Hokkaido region that hosts karaoke during dinner service, allowing Broadway wannabes, retirees and eager patrons to belt out their signature song. It all happens with the support of a robust cocktail menu and natural wines. Perhaps the most ambitious of New York’s spots is Midnight Theatre, a new venue where guests can enjoy high-concept cocktails (like a Margarita with matcha and salted almond foam, or a French 75 that leans on kombucha) by acclaimed bartender Iain Griffiths while attending ticketed events, like big-band nights, comedy sets and more. 

“Guests are definitely looking for more entire-evening experiences since the pandemic,” says Josh Cohen, co-founder of Midnight Theatre. “Folks are spending more frugally and barhopping is not as popular.”

Across the country in Los Angeles, The Cinegrill Supper Club and Theater is also betting on the one-stop shop idea with the revitalization of a 1930s venue at the historic Roosevelt Hotel. Here, guests can purchase $25 tickets to a movie screening, which includes a glass of wine, and order cocktails by beverage director Dan Sabo, who has been behind some of the city’s most ambitious drink programs. “The magical part about Cinegrill is that it’s a return to the old; there’s a level of authenticity,” says Sabo.

The revival of the proper drink with a side of entertainment isn’t just about nostalgia, though—it’s an acknowledgment that the very fact of going out is something worth celebrating. “There’s a sense of decorum,” Sabo continues. “It feels like a real, proper experience to go out, and not just be out.” 

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