We know that experiential dining has been big for some time. Yet, at the end of 2022, the New York Times listed experiential eating as a restaurant food trend for 2023. We forgive them for their late-to-the-table arrival. There were, after all, a few weird years interlaced in our last decade.
So, when did experiential dining become a thing? And, more importantly, when did it make the grade as one of the most popular trends?
The History of Experiential Dining
Some suggest that theme restaurants represent the first eateries embracing experiential dining. Credit for the first one goes to Paris Cafes and Cabarets in Montmartre in the late nineteenth century. In the U.S., the 1950s saw the model take off, with Western, Polynesian, and Medieval eateries growing in popularity. In 1945, the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar, a Polynesian-themed tiki bar in San Francisco, opened. It’s still there, with its large central lagoon, tropical rainstorms, and a band playing island music on a floating thatch-roof boat.
Not every themed restaurant has stood the test of time, with many going by the wayside thanks to a strong emphasis on theme and a lack of focus on food and beverages. For more than 40 years, the pink Mexican restaurant called Casa Bonita served the Denver Metro area. Defined as eatertainment, the 52,000 square foot restaurant seated over 1,000 guests who took in the 30-foot waterfall, cliff divers, stage shows, mariachi bands, sword fighters, and musicians. The food, however, was mass-produced. When it fell on hard times, the creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, wouldn’t let it die, investing over $40 million to restore the iconic brand.
Experiential Turns to Social Entertainment
Experiential dining was, initially, an observer’s game—watching the scene unfold as you dined on somewhat bland food. Today, entertainment is about engagement, competitive social entertainment, global food offerings, and signature beverages. One of the leaders in this segment, Adam Breeden, created or co-founded companies like F1 Arcade, Puttshack, Flight Club, Bounce, All Star Lanes, and Hijingo, innovative brands that combine sports and technology.
On to the Extreme Restaurants of Tomorrow
Of course, the restaurant industry has never been one for accepting boundaries. Today, it’s about the highest, lowest, or most extreme multi-sensory experience possible.
Officially named the highest restaurant in a building by Guinness World Records is Heavenly Jin, an open-kitchen concept with floor-to-ceiling windows on the 120th floor of the J Hotel Shanghai Tower. In the U.S., that title goes to Il Rifugio, a European-style bistro at the summit of Colorado’s Arapahoe Basin ski area. Looking for the lowest restaurant? It would be hard to beat Ithaa, a restaurant found 16 feet under the ocean in the Maldives.
Care for some other extremes? How about dining in an igloo in Antarctica? Whichaway sits on the shores of a freshwater lake, a place where you’ll enjoy the company of more Emperor penguins than people. It’s a world that offers ice climbing, ice tunnels, and scaling a blue-ice glacier. Gourmet meals are prepared by your private chef.
Too cold? How about a diamond-shaped bar suspended over Dashbashi Canyon near Tbilisi in Southern Georgia? The bar is suspended over the canyon by a 787-foot glass bridge. The $40 million project (approximately) also offers zip lines, cliff swings, and guest suites. The goal: extreme, exciting, and unforgettable.
Elevating Your Restaurant Through Creativity and Innovation
The primary question many in the restaurant industry are asking themselves is, “How do I set myself apart from the competition?” While we may not all have the desire (or funding) to open a restaurant 16 feet under the sea or in the coldest place on earth, creating a memorable experience is in our wheelhouse.
How can I make my restaurant more fun?
First, remember to always stick to your brand and concept when adding entertainment and other events. Then, consider some top restaurant entertainment strategies, including live music, themed menu nights, trivia nights, wine and whiskey tastings, special planned events, and chef and bartender demonstrations.
How can I expand my small restaurant business?
While it may not be the right time to add additional locations, you can start with smaller expansion plans. These may include launching a pop-up, starting a food truck, creating a virtual brand, and adding additional revenue streams. F&B Insights’ Menu Monetization, a system that creates an additional revenue stream through supplier relations, offers a good starting place.