Technology turns dinner entertainment on its head

A meal accompanied by a high-tech animated show, replete with immersive video, is ushering in a new era of dinner theater.

At Journey, a new restaurant in New York City's Flatiron district, the menu supports a narrated story told through a spectacular display of images. The operators behind it drew inspiration from other dining experiences that feature animation and augmented reality, such as Le Petit Chef.

Decades ago, dinner theater meant food served while watching a performance on stage. Then dinner and a movie became a thing, while a meal often precedes theater, a concert or sporting event. But now, new technology is allowing imaginative restaurateurs to offer awe and excitement – with food to match.

The type of show at Journey depends on the room; different shows are shown in the restaurant's different spaces.

For example, at Journey 360, up to 20 people sit at a communal table with high-resolution video projected onto the tablecloth, walls and ceiling. A story, narrated by a live actress whose own character has a rather involved backstory, “takes” the guests via immersive video aboard a luxury blimp docked at the Empire State Building.

Guests are transported to different countries, from the Amazon to Southeast Asia, and then underwater and into space, with high-definition computer generated imagery, as they're served food meant to fit the environment.

And the food is no joke. Chef Edward Hong offers subtle and complex dishes. On one night, black cod with Japanese ginger in a yuzu dashi glaze paired with an Oregon Pinot Noir was served, as images of manta rays and other ocean dwellers virtually swam along the walls and across the table. Hong then presented gin-cured salmon with cucumber, horseradish, apple and dill, and poured Vernaccio from Tuscany, as grand videos of the Arctic played. Veal cheek with black rice risotto, harissa and mascarpone cheese, paired with a Washington Cabernet Sauvignon, was served amid videos of the heart of a volcano.

In another room. Journey Odyssey, Tony award-winning actresses Judy Kaye, Cady Huffman and Deborah Craig appear virtually on the tabletop as part of a story about an apprentice cook named Sam, who is hoping to get promoted, as the guests are also transported to different venues, from Venice, Italy, and China to Argentina and ultimately, to outer space.

Even at the bar, guests are treated to video projections featuring celebrities who tell stories related to the drinks they ordered.

The star power is thanks to Marc Routh, a Broadway veteran who is partners with restaurateur Alex Cesaria in Journey.

“When we started to work on this project, we were looking at how we might use different technology,” Routh said. “There were a couple of different techniques. One was a 360-degree projection mapping experience, and the other major one was this table-top projection. We liked both of them, so we decided to do both. They're pretty different, and the variation that we were able to make, which has never been done before on the tabletop, was that we added the live performers that we filmed in a green­screen studio.

“Then, after we had filmed that, we created the animations that they're in, and so that was kind of an exciting technique. It allowed us to tell a more complex story than a pure animation would, because they were actual Tony Award­-winning Broadway actors rather than just animated figures.” Although Routh comes from the theater world, he said the food is the centerpiece. “That's sort of our secret,” he said. “You think when you're going to one of these things that it's going to be all about the technology or the entertainment, but in fact the food is really quite spectacular.”

Routh's inspiration that included Le Petit Chef has been making the rounds in Europe and Asia, and currently at the JW Marriott Washington, D.C., New York Marriott Marquis, The Fairmont Chicago, Millennium Park and Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans. Another source of inspiration is Sublimation, an immersive experience in Ibiza, Spain, for which guests pay $2,000 each for a three-hour banquet that virtually transports them through time and space as they eat avant-garde food by two-­Michelin-star chef Paco Roncero.

TableMation Studios, the creators of Le Petit Chef, have debuted a similar project at the SLS Hotel Beverly Hills and the Four Seasons Hotel Austin, with plans for shows in the San Francisco Bay area soon.

In the show, titled “Nya & Ned Save the World,” laser projectors broadcast visuals onto guests' tabletops showing chefs Nya and Ned trying to conduct a cooking class while the villain, Dr. Animator, attempts to foil their plans.

As at Journey, the guests are taken on a global adventure, this one culminating at the Eiffel Tower, while the culinary team at each venue prepare their versions of Nya and Ned's food.

The experience at Journey is $175 per person for a tasting menu, and cocktails are $18 each, while Petit Chef ranges depending on the menu. At the Fairmount Chicago, prices start at $155.

“It's fun and whimsical, pairing perfectly with the four courses to create a unique Instagrammable night out for our guests,” says TableMation Studios' CEO Michael Bickel.

And of course, the fact that these experiences are so visually engaging, and thus great fodder for social media, as Bickel says, means that the guests become the restaurants' best marketers.