Dining in the dark. Dining in the sky. Dining underwater. Eating out of and on a toilet. What’s up with this fascination with eating food in (relatively) strange places?
When a local casino hotel brought in Dinner in the Sky—in which you are suspended 150 feet above the ground just to have dinner in the sky—people’s reactions were mixed. The captions on my Facebook friends’ shares about it ranged from “we have to go do this, [tagged friend]” to “nope nope nope nope.” Like the notion of skydiving (which is, after all, falling fast several feet through the air), people were either thrilled by the idea of the adrenaline rush, or they’re afraid of heights, like any normal person.
This goes as well for other dining gimmicks. Modern Toilet in Taiwan (and its local counterpart, Boracay Toilet) is relatively harmless compared to Dinner in the Sky, but the thought of eating out of a (clean) toilet bowl tickles the imagination. Or you may have gone and tried one of the many cat and dog cafes that’ve mostly sprung up in the north like Barkin’ Blends in Katipunan or the Cat Café along Maginhawa.
You may be wondering: Why? What possesses some people to think of totally out-of-the-box ideas to reinvent the wheel of dining? When did eating get so complicated?
Well, the reason is so simple you don’t even have to ask an expert. Novelty gets people going and the act of eating out has, in theory, become so routine that consumers want a different experience (in theory). These days, the more you stand out with your gimmick, the more customers you get.
And for some, gimmicks are no longer just the kind of food or cuisine you’re serving. We’re still getting a kick out of food trends and fusion cuisines, but clearly that isn’t enough.
While you shouldn’t really be a killjoy—you go and do whatever makes you happy, so long as you’re not hurting anyone—maybe it’s also best to stop and wonder, what are these gimmicks hiding? Is this restaurant carrying me high into the sky to mask the fact that their food isn’t really all that? Am I eating at a pretty 1950s-themed restaurant in Makati so I could take a photo of myself eating at a pretty 1950s-themed restaurant?
What are they really selling here—food or experience?
Due to the nature of these trends, some diners already see right through the façade of gimmicks. I asked a friend who’s been to a local maid café, the idea imported from Japan and their love for anime, what he thought of his experience. He told me that after going there for the promise of waitresses dressed up as French maids (and being able to interact with them by playing party games) and being served what amounted to Lucky Me! instant noodles, he was discouraged with the idea of eating at gimmicky establishments.
“You end up wondering if the food is actually any good,” he tells me. “It’s often the case that they put more effort into the experience than the food, which gets stale after the first few visits.”
Another friend, who worked as a “life server” (their name for waiters) at Van Gogh is Bipolar, has an opinion that lines up with that sentiment. As he shares with me, Van Gogh is a place where people going through any mental health issues can go to relieve their souls while having their food. With all the introspective and activities they offer along with the food, it’s basically a retreat house disguised as a restaurant.
When you forego the fancy stuff and buy from a kind old uncle and auntie in a Singapore hawker center, you’re out there getting an experience. And when you’ve forked over thousands of pesos just to be hoisted 150 feet in the air while eating, you’re still out there getting an experience.
He recounts, from his time there, that dining can be pretty costly because of the soul-searching experience they offer, but it’s worth a try. After one visit, though, it’s not somewhere you’d probably want to go back—unless you need to go soul searching again.
So when you think about it, dining itself is an experience. The two have never been mutually exclusive. When you go abroad and sit down at a ramen bar tucked away in a Tokyo alley just for some authentic Japanese noodles, you’re out there getting an experience. When you forego the fancy stuff and buy from a kind old uncle and auntie in a Singapore hawker center, you’re out there getting an experience. And when you’ve forked over thousands of pesos just to be hoisted 150 feet in the air while eating, you’re still out there getting an experience.
“If the company spends on making the atmosphere worth your money, then yes, I’d check it out,” says my friend who went to the maid café. He’s been to other restaurants that have redeemed the idea of the gimmick restaurant, thankfully. He notes that there are just some ideas that won’t work in our local setting due to cultural differences. It’s hard to figure out which gimmicks to avoid unless you try them.
Just make sure you’re not getting shortchanged on the actual food because at the end of the day, the place can still be pretty but you could still be unsatisfied. If you’re a budding restaurateur reading this and you’ve got a kickass idea, remember that the food has to be great, too. You and other diners have come to this place, most of all, to obey your hunger.
Hunger trumps Instagrammability any day. After all, why risk your life (and your money) for subpar food?