I like to eat out. So do lots of other people. With so many places to choose from, what kind of new tactics can restaurateurs employ to make their own establishment stand out? One interesting approach is to switch attention away from the menu and look at how you can make the dining area itself more dynamic and engaging. I had two dining experiences recently in restaurants that change while you eat. One was a glitzy and expensive place in Las Vegas, where the ‘changes’ were hi-tech and choreographed like a Cirque du Soleil show, and the other was a casual and expensive place in Luanda, where they were a little more incidental.
Encore is one of Las Vegas’s newer hotels and suffers from the need to outdo its older neighbours to attract business. The casino is quite extraordinary: imagine walking into the vestibule of the palace of a Disney princess with a gambling habit and whose favourite colours are red and gold, and you won’t be far off. From the thick red carpets to the ornate golden pillars, all carefully lit to bring out the reddy-goldness of everything, the place is dripping with opulence. The Las Vegas Strip is a World Wonder of spectacle, yet Encore succeeds in taking it even further over the top.
Among the half dozen or so restaurants that border the casino is Switch Steak, so called because the restaurant likes to switch and because they do steak. As we perused our menus and the wine list (which was as thick as a Bible) we kept one eye on our surroundings, waiting for something to happen. It was actually quite distracting having your attention pulled in two directions at once. The stubbornly motionless dining room was preventing me from choosing what to order, with its promise of imminent animated spectacle.
Then it happened: the music changed and got louder, the lighting changed colour, and the restaurant started to move about. The formerly flat ceiling started drawing itself up into a hidden vaulted space, rose light fittings became hanging chandeliers, and dividing walls ascended into recesses in the ceiling, exposing a garden on one side and the back of the cocktail bar on the other. It’s like being on a Disney ride, only you stay still while the ride gyrates around you. I looked around at the other diners while all this was going on. Some—like us—were gazing around in wonder at the show, while others just got on with their conversations and meals. I wondered how they could just ignore the fact that the building in which they were dining was moving around them. Of course the answer became apparent as the evening went on; Switch changes from low ceilinged, walled in, to high ceilinged, open plan every half hour, so for those approaching dessert the novelty was wearing off. And it got a bit old for us too, spectacular as it is. During the second half of the meal we studiously ignored it all. It had ceased to be thrilling and original and had instead become merely irritating, even to the point of intruding on our privacy. The meal was very good but very expensive, and I’m glad of the experience, but I feel no desire for a repeat performance.
Thursday nights in Luanda are Dinner-on-the-Ilha-Night for Karen and me, and last night we went to Coconuts. Like most other restaurants on the Ilha, Coconuts is a beach club where you can rent a sun lounger by day and enjoy cocktails and dinner at night, under a canvas roof strung between palm trees, with muted lighting and chillout music completing what is intended to be a sophisticated tropical vibe.
It tries hard but doesn’t quite live up to my description; the food and wine are overpriced (this is Luanda) and even in the dark you can see unsightly detritus on the beach, including, last night, a discarded chest freezer. The way Coconuts ‘changes’ is very different from Switch. It’s usually quiet when we go and last night was no exception, with about three quarters of the tables empty. The waiters seem to be trying to make up for this by constantly moving them about. I’m sure you’ve all had the experience of watching waiters hurriedly reconfiguring a dining area to accommodate a large party, or putting tables back after a large party has left. Well that’s what they do at Coconuts all the time, but the large party never seems to come. As we sat choosing what to order a table floated past us at head height, closely followed by three chairs, and the same thing happened again when our meals arrived. I looked around for the big group they were clearly preparing for but there wasn’t one. It’s as if the Manager tells them to do this just to keep them busy and to give the impression that they’re gearing up for another busy night. It was during the third bout of table carrying that all the lights went out and the music stopped. No Disney-style entertainment this, but a simple power cut. When the power goes out in a public place in Luanda everyone cheers, so we cheered. This is a regular occurrence and on this occasion we were dark for about ten minutes. Everyone got on quietly with their meals, just about able to see what they were eating in the moonlight. Then the lights came back on and we all cheered again.
Next time we go out I’d quite like to eat somewhere where the lights stay on and the furniture stays put.