It may be an idea as old as theater itself—drinking and eating during a show. Watching performances in the age of Shakespeare, for example, was never particularly quiet. It was what might be called interactive theater these days, with its audiences booing and cheering, augmented by the calls of food merchants weaving through the crowds.
When archaeologists from the Museum of London Archeology excavated the site of London’s Rose Playhouse beginning in the late 1980s, they found evidence of nuts, fruits—like apples, plums, and grapes—and lots of shellfish, including oysters, mussels, crabs, periwinkles, and cockles.
If you thought the sound of someone chewing popcorn was loud, try the repetitious sound of shells being dropped on the ground throughout a show.
These days, you’re likely to encounter better decorum when it comes to respecting artists’ work (on second thought, that’s arguable, I’ll admit). And while plenty of entertainment venues provide food and drink for the crowd, only some are rising to the challenge of pleasing palates.
For example at Rider, the Williamsburg restaurant newly opened this spring inside the same building as performing arts venue National Sawdust, patrons can order and eat during the shows. The hors d’oeuvres-type items, ordered from the Reception menu, are easy to eat without silverware—which would be disruptive.
Guests check off their picks on a menu card much like a dim sum menu, chef Patrick Connolly explained. And although many patrons might be fixated on the show, Connolly’s bites are bound to get some attention.
Connolly, a James Beard Award winner, serves tender Medjool dates filled with ‘nduja—a spicy pork spread of Calabrian origins. The interplay of sweet, savory, and spicy is arresting. Another great pick is the duck confit rolled in Swiss chard leaves; the hoisin sauce with the duck will remind you of Peking duck.
Other offerings include Smoked Hake Toast with horseradish and roasted watercress, and for a dose of nostalgia, Chicken Nuggets. Wrap up these curry-flavored nuggets in the Bibb lettuce and there’s a lovely satisfaction that comes from the crunch of the nugget, and the freshness of the lettuce and pickled mustard seeds.
Recently, for an opera performance about Orpheus and Eurydice, he created boards of delectables, inspired by ancient Roman wedding feasts, that were served to guests about 18 minutes into the performance—polenta with date and anchovy sauce, chickpea fritter with yogurt, fregola with turnips, roasted celeriac with Apicius glaze, grape leaf, feta, pomegranate tea, and olive leaves and edible flowers.
Connolly is a music lover and enjoys the perk of popping over next door during the afternoon rehearsal or at the end of the night, going up to the balcony through the second floor of the restaurant, to catch the late show.
Even though the restaurant and the venue are in the same building, he said he can’t hear anything in the kitchen.
“The two main things that the founders of National Sawdust wanted were great food and impeccable acoustics,” Connolly said.
The walls are suspended on springs and there are two sets of acoustical doors. “You can have death metal in the venue—not that it would ever happen—and I could step 5 feet into the restaurant and it would be silent,” he said.
The venue hosts private functions when there’s no show going on; with its audio and video capabilities, it’s especially attractive to tech companies. It’s also equipped with white felt panels, on which anything can be projected. “It looks almost stark, almost futuristic, but you can really soften it up with projecting. You can alter the feel of the room. It’s very flexible,” Connolly said.
Broadway’s Supper Club
By the end of a spring evening at Feinstein’s/54 Below in Midtown, there was hardly a dry eye around me.
Tony Award-winning star Paulo Szot had wooed and charmed the audiences with his baritone voice and was receiving a standing ovation and requests for an encore.
Feinstein’s/54 Below is an intimate venue—it seats 134 people, but no table is more than 24 feet away from the stage. The venue opened in 2012, when Tony Award-winning producers Tom Viertel, Marc Routh, Richard Frankel, and Steven Baruch (of “Hairspray” and “The Producers”) decided to launch a nightspot that would bring together world-class entertainment with dining to match.
In the fall of 2014, they hired executive chef Lynn Bound, who previously worked for Danny Meyer’s restaurant group at the Museum of Modern Art.
Bound, who used to love going to Broadway shows, now has them at her door every night—and afternoons during sound checks.
“I love the intimacy of it,” she said. Many of the guests are regulars who come every week, and some come even more often, she added.
“It’s a really sensory experience, to come in and forget about life for a while, so to say.”
As Feinstein’s/54 Below offers a pre-show menu, it’s not unusual for the kitchen to be hit with 100 orders at once. Bound, who is known for her nurturing leadership style, is proud of her kitchen team. “They know the drill they’re good at it. They just execute well. They’re calm, that’s the key.”
Here noises do carry to and from the kitchen, so once a show starts, the kitchen goes into ninja mode. “If it’s an acapella song, we’ll be totally still,” she said.
Bound’s cuisine is ingredient-forward, shaped by the seasons and by high-quality sourcing, with dishes like King Ora king salmon with citrus vinaigrette, or filet mignon from Creekstone with a potato grain and chimichurri sauce.
If you’ve ordered dessert, it comes to your table about halfway through the show, which gives you a nice break after your main entree.
The dinner menu later gives way to more snacky types of items as the evening wears on toward a second show—with mac and cheese and charcuterie, although a late dinner is routine for many.
With its star-attracting power, Feinstein’s/54 Below could do very well with only passable food; instead it is setting the bar high for other entertainment venues.
Dinner and a Movie
Tim Chung, a former film and TV location scout, saw that many people were not going out to the movies anymore. With the window of time between seeing a movie in a theater and watching it on iTunes reduced to a matter of weeks, he felt that many people just wanted to stay home.
He said his mission is, “Let’s make going to the movies an event again,” creating venues where moviegoers can order food, desserts, and alcohol.
Taking inspiration from venues like the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Texas that offer movies, drinks, and food under one roof, he opened Syndicated in Bushwick, Brooklyn, earlier this year, where a single movie ticket costs $3.
Curating the movies is his favorite part of the job. Last month he had a director spotlight on the Coen brothers and Alfred Hitchcock. This month, some of the movies about hitting the road, from “Little Miss Sunshine” to “Thelma & Louise” to “Dumb and Dumber,” and earlier this month the more galactic-minded “Spaceballs” and “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
Executive chef Bret Macris, who hails from Los Angeles, brings a fine dining touch to the comfort food and is particular about his sourcing, choosing Niman Ranch and local distributor Heritage Foods for its small producers.
Syndicated has two menus: one for the main dining room and another for the theater, where patrons can check off their orders on a menu ticket.
The rhythm of conventional restaurants follows a predictable pattern, Macris said—first diners arriving at 6:30 p.m., filling the restaurant around 8 p.m., and then starting to trickle out around 9 p.m.
“It’s not like that [at Syndicated],” he said. “It’s a really wondrous thing. Let’s say tonight we have an 8:10 [show]. Right around 7:40 this place will pack in and somebody will come out [and say], ‘Now seating for the 8:10 showing of “Trainwreck”,’ and you watch the entire bar clear out, like ‘What happened?'”
Macris is mindful of creating food that is easily eaten in the dark and not too messy—although the best-selling Loaded Tater Tots, with pulled pork, beer cheese Mornay sauce, sour cream, and jalapeño, or the popular Buttermilk Fried Chicken with French fries, might prove audiences don’t care too much about keeping neat.
Sometimes the food matches the film—there were White Russians available for the showing of “The Big Lebowski” in January, and a Royale with Cheese—a burger that stayed on the theater menu after a screening of “Pulp Fiction.”
For dessert, the beer float—the current version with Keegan’s Mother’s Milk, chocolate ice cream, caramel sauce, and whipped cream—is one of those things that happily forgive you if you let it melt a little longer. “It’s a ridiculous thing,” Macris said. “Most shakes or most things like that, you don’t want them to sit too long. But with a beer float, if you let this thing sit for an extra five minutes, it all starts to coalesce; it’s better, the longer it sits.”
That’s good to know if you get really into the movie.
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