6 Restaurants Taking Experiential Dining to New Heights
There are great restaurants, and then there are great restaurants that transport you to another world or time. These are places where it’s not just about what you’re eating, but also where and how you’re eating. We found several such restaurants spread around the country, starting with the immersive experience that is The Willows Inn on tiny Lummi Island in the Pacific Northwest, where you take a catamaran to an unforgettable, world-class, 20-course meal. There’s also an LA restaurant that asks foodies to dine entirely in the dark (really); a Montana venue literally lodged in the Big Sky mountains; and a charming place in New York that channels Tokyo -- in both its menu and its crowd-sourced playlist. All of our choices teleport diners to new experiences, new places, and most importantly, delicious new tastes.
You might doubt that a trip to the LA suburbs could land you in an authentic, Wyoming-style hunting outpost, but Saddle Peak Lodge is here to prove you wrong (and feed you elk tenderloin with red wine jus). Nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains, less than an hour from downtown LA, Saddle Peak has about a century’s worth of stories to tell -- from its humble beginnings as a general store in the early 1900s to its first heyday as a summer retreat for Hollywood royalty like Errol Flynn and Clark Gable in the ’50s. Today, it’s a massive, three-story destination restaurant adorned with antiques, enormous taxidermy, multiple fireplaces, and a spacious patio overlooking the mountains. There’s also a rare whiskey room, a library, and an all-California wine list. Then there’s the menu. It satisfies both the meat-and-potatoes crowd and the more adventurous souls interested in dining on emu, ostrich, venison, or elk. Indeed, Saddle Peak is one of the only restaurants in the state to offer multiple game options year-round. Other highlights include Idaho trout with wasabi, beets, and smoked avocado; 72-hour ribeye steak, and albacore crudo. “Our menu features locally-farmed produce, arguably the best in the world,” says Executive Chef Adam Horton. “We pair the freshest seasonal produce with rare and obscure meats, as well as French-influenced seafood dishes from a Michelin three-star trained chef.”
New York, New York
Paying homage to vinyl record lounges in Japan, New York City’s Tokyo Record Bar is part underground listening room and part high-end take on a traditional izakaya tasting menu. Here’s how it works: Customers enter the speakeasy-style space through a tiny door in the rear of a champagne bar. (Of course, they’re encouraged to grab a glass while they wait for their reservation.) They’re handed a menu, but not for the food (that’s a preplanned seven-course tasting menu). No -- the menu is for the music, and it consists of more than 100 records, ranging from ABBA and the Beach Boys to the Wu-Tang Clan and ZZ Top. Sipping on sake tonics, each diner decides on one track to pick from this library of tunes. When the DJ drops the needle on the first crowd-sourced selection, that’s the cue for the gorgeous tasting menu to start rolling out. There could be braised pork belly with spicy rice, pickled daikon, or salmon sashimi. You might get mushroom tempura, caviar sushi, or monkfish. Whatever pops out, the next 90 minutes or so will be a glorious blend of head-bopping music and mouth-watering small plates. There are only 18 seats, and just two or three seatings per night (depending on the day of the week), so book early (and keep your reservation!). At the end of the evening, depending on how filling the tasting menu was, you may get a slice of pizza. Really. Tokyo Record Bar has become famous for closing out the night out with a slice, and we applaud them for it. The music options are always on point, and the entire evening is intimate, groovy, and delicious all at once.
Food presentation at this outlandish Miami Beach spot looks like a collaboration between a Cake Boss contestant and the set designer for Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Lobster Pop-Tarts layered in phyllo and butter and stuffed with Gruyère cheese and lobster -- delivered to your table via a neon pink toaster -- is just one example. “I wanted to take dishes that guests found familiar and present them in never-before-seen ways with an upscale twist,” says founder and CEO Barton G. Weiss. If you’re looking for a dazzling experience complete with props, liquid nitrogen cocktails, and a charred s’mores dessert hidden under a golden chocolate brick and an oversized faux $100 bill, there’s no better place to shock and awe your culinary senses than Barton G. What started as an event company 17 years ago became something else entirely -- and it’s taken Instagram by storm. “Our team is inspired by anything and everything around them, from nature to a construction zone,” Weiss says. “We brainstorm ideas and refine them until we have an amazing-tasting dish and over-the-top presentation. There really isn’t anything in the world like what we do.”
You can get ramen just about anywhere in the US, but at Yume Wo Katare in Cambridge, you can get a bowl of delicious, soothing ramen while also sharing your secret dreams -- out loud, with a room full of strangers. The Japanese phrase “yume wo katare” literally translates to “talk about your dreams” in English, and that’s what they do there. Once you finish eating in the intimate, 20-seat venue, you’re encouraged to stand up and share a dream, no matter how small or large, with other diners, the wait staff, and the chef. The dreams are then posted on a bright blue wall, alongside hundreds of others. The experience has clearly hit a nerve: There’s always a line out the door, and Yume Wo Katare was recently celebrated at Harvard with a ramen-making presentation and an appearance by the restaurant’s Japanese founder, Tsuyoshi Nishioka. There are two ramen options -- the regular-size jiro ramen and the larger buta (with extra pork). Both contain supple, flavorful noodles and tender pork, and both are very sizable. So big, in fact, that if you finish all of yours, the staff will congratulate you with a hearty “Perfect!” loud enough for all to hear. Right before they hear about your secret dream of becoming the frontwoman for a Riot Grrrl revival band.
Big Sky, Montana
When ski season rolls around, Big Sky turns into a winter wonderland -- and there’s no place that leans into this more than the Montana Dinner Yurt. Tucked into a mountainside with views of Lone Peak, the Spanish Peaks, and the Big Sky Mountain Village, the Yurt is only 15 minutes from Big Sky resort, but it’s a world away from civilization. The evening begins with a snowcat trip over rugged backcountry terrain (there are no roads up there). “The Yurt Dinner experience is uniquely Montana and is inspired by the mountainous landscape and rugged surroundings,” says Kevin Daily, who owns the operation with his wife, Jodi. “Guests should feel they have left everyday life behind for an adventure in the backcountry.” Inside the yurt, there are long communal tables, oil lanterns, candles, a wood stove radiating welcome heat, and live music. Given the setting, the meal is appropriately hearty, with offerings like ultra-rich French onion soup, absurdly tender filet mignon, and Toblerone chocolate fondue. There’s also time for sledding, stargazing, and chilling around a campfire during your roughly three-hour visit. This is the ultimate way to experience the majesty of the Montana mountains. Needless to say, guests should dress for winter, and though there is no alcohol available at the yurt, patrons should feel free to bring their own.
Santa Monica, California
Food is a multi-sensory experience, so try to imagine if you were deprived of one of your senses during a dinner outing. That’s what happens at Opaque, where you dine in pitch-black darkness, and the waitstaff is composed of visually impaired individuals “specially trained to serve meals in the dark.” Before entering, guests turn off their cell phones so as to not impinge upon the atmosphere in any way, and the entire meal occurs in, as mentioned, utter darkness. It’s a unique dining adventure, to say the least, as well as a chance to experience a few hours as a visually impaired individual. Opaque works with The Braille Institute and Foundation Fighting Blindness to find employees, and does extensive fundraising around blindness. The three-course meal starts at $99 a head and features offerings like braised meats, vegetarian ragu, and tempura-fried bacon. There’s also a “mystery” option for guests who want to lean even further into the “in the dark” experience, complete with the conversation-starting “What am I actually eating?” element. Guests often report this, and conversations with their visually impaired server, as the most indelible parts of the experience at Opaque.