The show that is dinner

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NEVER mind the traditional night out of theatre followed by dinner — in today’s extensive dining repertoire, the theatricals are sometimes in the dinner itself. And it goes beyond watching an expert assembly of ingredients in an open kitchen or lightning-quick knife work at a teppanyaki station.

Novelty eating experiences work to create atmospheric settings for the adventurous diner who enjoys drama both on and off the plate. As the emphasis is often on the ambience or presentation, some may find a trade-off between that and food quality. But more often than not, the judicious curating of the surroundings enhances the meal experience.

Take, for instance, Dining in the Dark, the enterprise along Changkat Bukit Bintang in KL whose concept is literally spelt out in its name. It cashes in on a popular movement in major cities where diners briefly step into the world of the blind, served by members of the visually-challenged community in pitch-black surroundings. Sight removed, the other senses are heightened: aromas are inhaled more deeply, textures are felt carefully (most patrons opt to eat by hand as more often than not, they miss the food when using a fork) and tastes are savoured slowly in an attempt to identify the presentation on the plate — the mystery menu is only revealed after the meal.

Malaysia is no stranger to concept restaurants: Rainforest Bistro & Café at Sunway Pyramid has long provided shoppers with a temporary respite from the heat and concrete of the city, while the now defunct Clinic Café at Penang’s Gurney Plaza played the part to the hilt with wheelchair seats, food served in kidney dishes, knives replaced with scalpels and ketchup squirted out of syringes. The medical nuances are reminiscent of Taipei’s hospital-themed DS Music Restaurant, in which doctors and nurses wheel out drinks hooked up to IV drips. Children especially get a thrill from this, though it gets a touch raunchy (and thus not very family-friendly) come Saturday nights.

Speaking of raunchy, remember that Sex and the City movie scene when the saucy Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall) decks herself with sushi — and nothing but sushi — as a Valentine’s Day surprise for her boyfriend? Nyotairomi (female body platter) is an expected sight at Japanese naked sushi bars, with the rolled morsels served on near-nude models. There’s even a male equivalent but unsurprisingly, demand for the former far outstrips those for the nantairomi. And fret not about health regulations: most codes dictate a layer of plastic or leaves to separate the food from bare skin.

A tasty serving indeed — you can’t go wrong with sushi and few men would object to the beautiful models — but what if your surroundings weren’t quite so savoury? Lavatory-themed outfits long popular in China and Japan have spurred headlines and comments such as “From bowels to bowls” and “How do you know which is the bathroom and which is the chair?”. While the trend is still going strong, the queasier customer may not be able to stomach drinking out of a urinal.

Then there’s prison, and not a defunct jail where you have to close your eyes to imagine convicted felons pacing in their cells either. At Fortezza Medicea in Volterra, near Italy’s Pisa, your waiters include the Mafiosi, who also prepare your food. Reservations aren’t easy to secure with bookings having to be made two months in advance (there is a comprehensive background check involved) and guests pass through numerous metal detectors and security checkpoints before being seated and served. Don’t worry about being stabbed or taken hostage mid-meal: all cutlery and utensils are plastic, while armed guards watch over the entire production. Should the idea distress you, however, settle for prison-themed restaurants around China instead.

If handcuffs and stripes are not quite your scene, there are far more pleasant options to pursue: ice bars, ninja-themed restaurants, airplane settings — you name it, chances are they exist somewhere. And yes, eating in bed has already been commercialised: several hang-outs in the US have patrons settle down and get comfortable on mattresses before orders are taken.

Whether they are slightly unorthodox or frankly disturbing, there is no denying these concept restaurants have established a firm footing in the dining industry, some continuing for years after the novelty has worn off. Distinct in setting, ambience or service, they offer a touch of the fantastical, and the diner who eats to live may find himself enjoying the experience more than the diner who lives to eat. The food may not always be top notch, but what you are guaranteed to take home is a story to share — which ranks it ahead of most theatrical productions anyway.