How TikTok Has Revived the Tableside Restaurant Show

Smoked desserts, martini carts, and theatrical salads are making a comeback.

Caesar salad at Cucina 8 1/2 | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Caesar salad at Cucina 8 1/2 | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

In Vegas, bartenders cart over a martini bar and shake drinks one-by-one in front of guests at Carvertsteak. In Nashville, a s’mores dessert is smoked at the table at Bourbon Steak. At four nationwide locations, diners are encouraged to smack a Klondike shell of a chocolate cake dessert with their spoon at Catch. And parmesan shavings dance through the air before landing on your tableside Caesar salad at Manhattan’s Cucina 8 1/2.

Guests don’t just merely wait for their food to be brought to them—they get to be a part of the action. “It’s almost like customers play a role in the dining,” says Cucina owner August Ceradini. “They’re part of the experience of preparing food tableside.”

When Ceradini first arrived in New York in the ’70s, he worked as a maître d’ in a posh restaurant in the Upper East Side. “I did tableside cooking like crazy,” he remembers. “Every night, we were making Caesar salad. We’re making steak tartare. We were doing filet mignons cooked right in the dining room.” Cherries jubilee and banana foster, too.

Ceradini and his partners opened Cucina 8 1/2 in December 2021, and they knew they wanted tableside experiences to be part of the restaurant. Among the offerings is a tableside Caesar salad and chicken parmesan and soon the restaurant will offer a “tableside trio,” which includes those items and a pasta limone.

And his restaurant isn’t an anomaly. Around the country, as fine dining establishments have opened back up and customers have returned in droves, these interactive restaurant experiences are on the rise. Plus, many guests have a phone in hand ready to capture the action on TikTok.

"Hit Me" chocolate cake | CATCH RESTAURANTS

Part of the allure with tableside dining, says Matteo Giacomazzi, the director of operations for Michael Mina’s Estiatorio Ornos, is that people want to be wowed when they dine out. Also, it’s much harder to achieve theatrical flair when you’re cooking for yourself at home. “When people have to get dressed, leave their home, pay valet, and dine at a fancy restaurant, that perceived value gets met even more aggressively whenever there's a show connected to it,” he says.

At Estiatorio Ornos, the “show” comes to the table in the form of a fish sommelier—a position made by the restaurant to show off their daily catches. A cart with plexiglass contains about four to six different fish in it along with oysters and caviar. “You get the whole story of it,” which includes the sizing, weight, fat content, and flavor profile, explains Giacomazzi. “And for people, that’s a super customized experience.”

Of course, in a social media world, it’s not just the restaurant diners enjoying the show, but the followers at home, too. Mike Schulte, a content creator in New York, first visited Cucina 8 1/2 in March and was “blown away” by the tableside experiences—he had the Caesar and the chicken parm, which is presented in a skillet before it’s topped with cheese, basil, and more cheese at the table. “I was like, ‘Wow, I don’t see much of any of this,’” Schulte says. “It was amazing, and the food matched, if not surpassed, the show.”

He made three videos of the various experiences that evening and shared them to his platforms where they were instant hits. “It’s not easy to find something unique in New York City, as crazy as that may sound,” says Schulte. “So much of it is a variation on something else, but genuinely unique, that’s not something I’ve seen.” The experience allowed him to forge a professional relationship with the restaurant and he now handles their social media and continues to see people excitedly sharing their tableside meals.

Schulte isn’t the only one racking up tons of views on TikTok of cool tableside experiences. In Tulsa, creator Mary Ledbetter’s video of alfredo pasta prepared tableside in a cheese wheel (with flames for added flourish) received over one million views, and in Dallas, over 12,000 people liked Eat In Dallas’s video of nitrogen margaritas.

“I think [videos] increase the business tremendously,” Ceradini says. Looking at a static photo only allows people to see one part of the experience, he says, and not really what the activity is like. “Instagram is becoming TikTok—it’s becoming all videos.”

Caesar salad at Cucina 8 1/2
Caesar salad at Cucina 8 1/2 | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

At Cucina 8 1/2, Ceradini sells about 40 to 75 tableside Caesar salads in a weekend. He’s also noticed that the restaurant has been pleasantly busy during typically slow July and August. Schulte credits that in part to the videos. They see the clientele that’s being driven in from the content they create, he says.

This kind of entertainment value has helped customers justify an often steep price tag. At Estiatorio in San Francisco, a tableside baklava sundae was recently added to the menu. A spiral hunk of baklava is carted out to the diners, and then topped with Greek yogurt, Amareno cherry, candied citrus, pistachio, and gold-flecked honey (naturally). At $21, it’s the most expensive dessert on the menu, which made Giacomazzi skeptical at first. Turns out, he didn’t have to worry.

“All you've got to do is push one out. And as soon as people see it, they're like, ‘Oh, I want that,’” says Giacomazzi. “They don’t even ask you what it is.”

Although tableside dining experiences are usually associated with glitzy restaurants, that’s not always the case. In Atlanta, Pat Pascarella owns the Porchetta Group which counts casual restaurants like Bastone and The White Bull among its roster. At each restaurant, guests can book a “polenta party” for groups, which is more than just tableside—it’s the entire table.

A chef walks out of the kitchen with a big pot of polenta that is then ladled on top of the butcher paper-lined table and topped with a variety of proteins and veggies (it changes at each restaurant). It’s a spectacle—and when the pot comes out of the kitchen, the phones come out, too. The popularity of these parties, and tableside shows in general, doesn’t surprise Pascarella.

“I think everybody’s just kind of over everything as a whole,” he says. “People are coming out now more than they ever have, and they really just want to have a good time.”

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Lia Picard is an Atlanta-based journalist writing about food, travel, and a variety of other topics. Her work appears in The New York Times,The Washington PostWine Enthusiast, and CNN Travel.