The slicing table-side of Peking duck at Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong is a form of dinner theatre to get behind. Photo: Nora Tam
Mouthing Off
by Andrew Sun
Mouthing Off
by Andrew Sun

Dinner and a show is dead – Peking duck carving, sizzling steaks, noodle pulling and flaming baked Alaskas is the food theatre we want

  • Food and performance have always gone hand in hand, but dinner theatre now seems passé, especially considering how seriously we take food in the social media age
  • But old food theatre is returning, with flambéed crepes and pasta in a cheese wheel back in vogue. Now let’s revive Peking duck carving and noodle pulling

Storied Hong Kong luxury hotel The Peninsula’s Felix restaurant has revived the glitter-ball glamour of ’70s disco by way of a dinner theatre show called Nights At Studio 54.

For those under 30, Studio 54 was the iconic New York nightclub famed for cocaine, orgies and celebrities, with A-listers from Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger to Elton John making appearances at one time or another.

By all accounts, the show is fun and fabulous. But I wouldn’t know. Tickets are over HK$2,300 (US$295), and while that’s not an unreasonable amount to spend on a meal for some, for me that’s groceries for the entire month.

There are plenty of restaurants offering experiential dining for roughly the same price, but without the polyester white suits and Bob Mackie sequinned dresses. The theatre arrives on the plates created in the kitchen.

Nights at Studio 54 is an immersive dining experience at Hong Kong’s Peninsula hotel. Photo: Peninsula hotel

Dinner and entertainment have always gone hand in hand. We know of Madrigal feasts during the Renaissance with choirs and jesters. We assume Egyptian pharaohs, Chinese emperors, and Roman generals all liked to lounge around and be fed while dancers pranced about seductively – at least that’s how the movies portray things.

Dinner theatre as we know it reached its zenith in the United States in the 1970s with regional theatre circuits featuring fading Hollywood stars performing Neil Simon plays, movie adaptations, and Broadway musical numbers.

Diners being treated to Medieval-style entertainment at Medieval Madness. Photo: Getty Images

The 1980s saw the rise of a grander, immersive gastro experience as dinner-entertainment company Medieval Times built replica castles in a fantastical environment where families could enjoy jousting and sword fights while eating mediocre food.

Naturally, the spiritual home of the dinner-and-a-show format has to be Las Vegas. Its showgirls, magicians and rotating Rat Pack headliners have been replaced in recent years with acts like Cirque du Soleil, Magic Mike Live and Celine Dion.

The thing is, no chef who takes his or her cooking seriously would be caught dead working in a dinner theatre. A real Escoffier disciple would expect their food to be dramatic and theatrical enough.

Guests attending the grand opening of Magic Mike Live in Las Vegas, in 2021. Photo: Getty Images

Molecular gastronomy contributed a lot to theatrical plating. Liquid nitrogen smoke, food as foam, and desserts disguised as unusual objects certainly made fine dining fun for a while.

The chef’s table has become the new front row on which to interact with celebrity head chefs. If you’re lucky you might get to see someone like Alvin Leung yell and scream at his team.

I’m not sure if dinner theatre will ever regain popularity with the masses except on cruise ships and at casino resorts. We take food appreciation far more seriously these days for entrées to be a background character in any evening of entertainment.

Chef Leung Chi-cheung at Hong Kong restaurant Peking Garden makes hand-pulled noodles. Photo: K.Y. Cheng

Every dinner course now needs to have some “wow” experiential appeal of its own. Whether that’s in the pouring of the jus or sauce, or serving food on the most unusual of plates – even pubs now commonly present their burger and fries on wooden planks – to entertain the eyes (and the phone camera) is as crucial to a chef’s repertoire as satisfying the stomach.

Lately, I’ve noticed that old-school tableside service seems to be coming back into vogue. My social media is full of crepes Suzettes being flambéed at new Hong Kong steakhouse Kilo.

Meanwhile, just-opened Hong Kong Italian-American restaurant Oro is promoting pasta presented in a Parmesan wheel, and baked Alaska set alight at the table, among their signatures. Only Hong Kong institutions like Hugo’s and Lawry’s did these things previously.
Beggar’s Chicken at Hong Kong’s Jade Garden restaurant.

I’m waiting for more Chinese restaurants to bring back tableside Peking duck slicing, noodle pulling performances, and beggar’s chicken being smashed by a mallet in front of guests. The sentimental part of me also wants to see steak delivered on sizzling iron plates again.

Having said that, for a real performance, dinner at any dai pai dong hawker stall or cooked food centre is pretty good too. The servers barking orders, the fire from the wok and the flash-fried cooking – that’s real theatre right there. I’m OK if I don’t get to boogie at the Peninsula.