Why is experiential dining having such a huge moment? Following a couple of years of pandemic shutdowns coupled with an unprecedented variety of food delivery options, a meal isn’t always enough incentive to leave the house. People are looking for unique and memorable experiences that go beyond the meal, and that’s why you’ll be seeing more experiential dining in 2023 and beyond.
From dining in the dark to Prohibition-inspired speakeasies, here are some of the most interesting experiences to try this year.
Dining in the dark operates on the premise that the removal of sight and distractions like phones and light enhances your other senses during a meal. There have been dining in the dark pop-up experiences across North America, but two of the most notable spots are Blackout in Las Vegas and ONoir, which has locations in Toronto and Montreal. Blackout offers a mystery menu brought to you by servers wearing night-vision goggles, while ONoir has both mystery and non-mystery menu options served by visually impaired waitstaff.
You could go for breakfast or lunch at a coffee shop, but why not visit a cat or dog café instead? While you enjoy a cup of coffee, you can interact and play with dogs or cats that are available for adoption. You may have to pay a cover charge or admission fee to get in, but it’s totally worth it for the dopamine hit and general adorableness.
For the adventurers and thrillseekers, Dinner in the Sky serves up meals at a dining table suspended from a crane more than 150 feet in the air. The first one was held in Belgium, but events have now been hosted all around the world. More than just dinner with a view, chefs actually prepare your meal at the center of the table too.
Speakeasies and hidden bars are popping up everywhere, and while cocktails remain the focus, elevated nibbles are also on the menu. Part of the excitement is being in on a really cool secret, complete with hidden or creative entrances like bodega storage rooms and vintage phone booths.
The best way to describe immersive dining is a meal that includes light shows, soundscapes and other special effects. For example, Le Petit Chef is a family-friendly option making its way around the world. A tiny animated chef appears to prepare each dish on the plate in front of you before the actual food is served. In Fort Lauderdale, Atmos offers diners a five-star meal with a multi-sensory experience, along with themed menus with accompanying audio/visual effects that stimulate all of your senses.
Your first encounter with experiential dining might have been Chuck E. Cheese, and the ever-growing number of game bars and restaurants definitely tap into that nostalgia. Retro arcade bars, like Barcade, which originated in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, offer an assortment of classic video games along with craft brews, cocktails and shareable bites. If you prefer tabletop gaming, board game cafés are perfect for spending an evening with friends. Many of them also have retail shops where you can snag a copy of the game you just played.
With this type of experience, it’s as much about the setting as it is the food, with memorable meals served primarily outdoors. Outstanding in the Field brings the restaurant to the source, hosting dinners everywhere from farms and vineyards to beaches and fishing docks across North America, Europe and Africa. Diner en Blanc, which started in France, is another roving experience, where large groups of invited guests gather for an exclusive, posh picnic in a public space.
When it comes to theme restaurants, the possibilities are endless, with options to dine in decommissioned airplanes and trains or former firehouses and textile mills. There are places like Storm Crow Manor in Toronto, with its geek-themed decor and menu that pays tribute to sci-fi, fantasy, horror, gaming and superheroes. If you’re in San Francisco, there’s the Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar, offering an immersive Tiki experience, including indoor rainstorms and a band that plays on a boat floating on an indoor lagoon. Then there’s Big Nose Kate’s Saloon in Tombstone, Arizona, a Wild West-themed establishment where you’re encouraged to dress up in your Western finery.
Yes, there are murder mystery dinner theater shows and experiences like Medieval Times, but if you’re in NYC, head to the Theater District and visit Ellen’s Stardust Diner or Gayle’s Broadway Rose to hear the singing waitstaff perform live. Heading to London? Circus is a legendary spot where you can nosh on shareable Pan-Asian dishes while watching aerialists, contortionists, fire breathers and more.