An elegant night out didn't always involve sitting under bistro lights in a postindustrial-chic cement box or lounging in a designer ersatz Deco wonderland, listening to Bollywood soundtracks at discreet volumes, arguing about whether foie gras is "humane."
In the 1960s and '70s, classy-with-a-capital-K diners headed out for an evening of dinner theater, where they hoped to trade quips with Don Ameche or Cyd Charisse while eating the kind of prix fixe meals that might grace the tables on the Love Boat. It's a fading tradition, one that occupies a strange niche, a devil's triangle of food, entertainment and kitsch. With dinner theater, the discerning diner wants some cheese—and not just on the fruit plate.
Old-school dinner theater is hard to find within the city limits. Sylvia's Class Act, once Portland's most well-known dinner theater, now sports locked doors and sun-bleached show posters from 2004. Eddie May Mystery Theater alleges to offer public shows in addition to corporate functions, but they thwarted WW's numerous recent attempts to book a seat. So, where can you buy a meal ticket? Fortunately, plenty of other immersive options abound for meals matched to amusements in and around Portland this summer—with just enough sweetness, seediness and surreality to keep you coming back for more.
Bad melodrama. Bland food. What's to love about the Mount Hood Railroad Dinner Theater Mystery Train? For starters, the views are lovely as the train slowly wends its way from the Columbia River Gorge up Hood River to Parkdale and back again: lazy streams, rambling brambles and acres of calm orchards. I even saw an osprey flapping away with a mouse for his dinner. If only our salmon entree had been so large. If only our salad greens had been so fresh.
The food on the train's prix fixe menu was coyly presented in undersized portions, shaped into rosettes and other catering whimsies. A local pear wine ($4) from Pheasant Valley managed to be sweet, tart, floral, fruity, woodsy and scary, all at once. You could prepare an equal dish of portabella mushroom and spinach-ricotta ravioli more cheaply at home with some help from Trader Giotto—and you wouldn't drench it with tinny sauce or pair it with shoestring potatoes. But could you eat it on a train? Huh? I don't think so.
Therein lies the appeal. We loved gently rocking along in the restored 1940s dining car, sometimes standing between the train cars, faces open to the wind and the sunset. Most of the food was edible; the service was stellar; plus, we experienced bursts of harassment by mostly amateurish actors during part of the four-hour ride. The show was The Eye of the Panther Murder Mystery, and as in mystery theaters everywhere, an ensemble cast mingled with patrons, involving us in corny jokes and a cornier plot.
It's chancy. Will you be seated with annoying strangers or interesting ones, or will you be able to luxuriate alone at a table with your date? Who'll drop by to involve you in the script: an irritating ingenue, some unfunny tabloid reporters, or the wisecracking "Bob," played with amiable sleaze by local actor Duane Hall? Is it worth $80—the cost of the prix fixe dinner, play and seating, sans tip and booze? So many questions. Only one Mystery Train.
Your feet pad across soft, patterned rugs. You settle onto a golden floor cushion and admire the inlaid table. Welcome to Marrakesh, where dinner is sensory overload.
Belly dancers and piped-in North African music mesmerize eyes and ears. Servers conduct rituals that please the senses of touch and smell: pouring mint tea, washing your hands over a beautiful tin bowl filled with orange-blossom-scented water. On a recent visit, our server dispatched these pleasantries in a disappointingly rapid, nurselike manner; we focused instead on the stunning gyrations and shimmying red beads of the evening's belly dancer.
And then there's the sense of taste, admirably seduced by gently spiced, often sweet Moroccan offerings. Most meals cost $17.50 per person for four courses, a small fruit dessert and tea. We kicked off with hariri, a soothing lentil soup, and a mixed salad plate. Then came the incredible B'stilla Royale, a moist chicken, egg and almond mixture snuggled inside a heavenly nest of phyllo dough, dusted liberally with powdered sugar and cinnamon. I completely forgot that we would receive (or need) any additional food, but up came our entrees: a mouth-melting chicken with honey and prunes, and the acceptable but unexciting Couscous Marrakesh. Veggie, pesci and omni options are available, but who are we kidding—grab a group of your best globe-trottin' friends and ante up for mechoui: a whole, spit-cooked sheep.
When another slice of 'za and a $3 second-run movie sound too dull, the curious Portlandian might trek to the burbs. There, in the pastoral bliss of the outer 'Couv near I-205, towers Cinetopia, a movie theater/restaurant that aspires to be a beacon of culinary and cultural achievement. But the fluorescent glow of mall culture washes over its landscape of upscale prices ($9.75 movie admissions), plush seating and a singularly confused gastronomical topography.
Ghastly approximations of bruschetta ($6) fight it out with "gourmet" hazelnut-buttered popcorn. Stuffed dates ($5) and a tolerable spinach salad ($10) provide relief, in the same way that finding a green-leaf salad is a relief when you're driving across North Dakota. The prosciutto wrap ($8) is absolutely disgusting, with its mealy bread and wilted lettuce hiding gummy layers of meat. Luckily, the pizza ain't half-bad. No doubt about it, the seats are super-comfy, and it's fun to be served coffee and dessert in a movie theater—if the movie you want to see just happens to be playing in one of the four "grand auditoriums" where they just happen to serve food. Otherwise, you order takeaway food from their '80s-decor sit-down restaurant, Vinotopia; wait in a different line to buy regular movie food like drinks, pizza, popcorn and desserts; haul it into one of four "living room auditoriums"; and wonder what the hell you're doing in Vancouver, Wash.
Meat and Meat
The inside of a steak should resemble the inner folds of a woman's lips: hot, pink and dripping with delicious juices. The filet I had at the Acropolis Steakhouse recently might better be described as tepid, pink and a bit rubbery, but it was also three dollars. Long associated with shock value and star power—both Marilyn Manson and chef Anthony Bourdain have endorsed this joint—the Acrop is legendary for its inexpensive beef, which can be consumed within close breathing distance of silicone-enhanced breasts and gyrating, shaved pudenda.
Expect to pay a few bucks at the door and to tip some amount in small bills. (It's easy, though, to avoid sitting right at the rail.) Various cuts of steak can be had for under $10, Lil' Smokies are a buck, and a two-pound hamburger costs $7. The mega-burger and its imposing mega-bun are packed with flavor: not the mashed-cardboard taste of a fast-food burger, not the dainty top notes wafting from an organic morsel of under-5-percent-fat ground sirloin, but the unapologetic wallop of a beefy strip-bar burger. Indeterminate seasonings and pungent sauces bring home the message. Should you decide that the burger is too salty, as my companion did, you can always crawl inside it to keep warm, like Luke Skywalker with his dead tauntaun in The Empire Strikes Back.
On a recent weekday, certifiably pretty young women (including some silicone-free cuties) took it all off to classics like Oingo Boingo's "Little Girls." If you're looking for meat with your meat, drop by the Acrop.
Small World, Big Eats
At the opposite end of the pole, so to speak, is the Rheinlander, a classic family-friendly, German-themed restaurant opened way back in 1963. Little peaked roofs, strings of tiny lights and flower boxes create a faux village above the main dining room. Older gentlemen mill about in lederhosen, playing accordion. If the Disney surreality isn't clear enough, the staff busts out singing "It's a Small World" and other classics every so often.
These are hearty cholesterol-and-carbs eats. Dinners include fondue appetizer, soup or salad, side dish, and entree (à la carte items may be ordered next-door at the more grown-up bar/restaurant, Gustav's). The tasty, sticky Swiss-cheese fondue starts things off with a bang; skip the extra $2.50 for a pesto upgrade, but do surrender an extra $2.99 for the smoked bier sausage accompaniment. The traditional iceberg wedge with toasted walnuts, shaved radish, and Danish blue cheese makes for a yum salad; run screaming from the pallid Caesar. Recent entrees were similarly hit-or-miss. Tangy sauerbrauten with braised red cabbage ($18.50) made the cut, as did the fabulous Königsberger Klopse ($16.95). In the latter, savory, stock-poached beef and pork meatballs cavorted with buttered spätzle noodles in a creamy caper sauce. If you're going for a three-heart-attack meal, you may as well do it right. Most sides were heavy but delicious, especially the scalloped potatoes and buttered spätzle.
But then there's the other side. Grainy polenta and over-roasted veggies ($15.95) moped in one of few vegetarian options. The chicken Cordon Bleu ($18.95) was unspectacular, and being stuck with the Black Forest rabbit ($21.95), with its oversmoked farm-raised venison, was rather like eating dinner in a humidor. Bleah. Despite its culinary inconsistencies, der Rheinlander makes for a boisterous, rib-sticking meal destination. Bonus: Staffers answer the phone with "Guten Tag." What's more entertaining than that?
Mount Hood Railroad Dinner Theater Mystery Train, 110 Railroad Ave., Hood River, 1-800-872-4661, www.mthoodrr.com/dinner.html. Reservations required.
Marrakesh, 1201 NW 21st Ave., 248-9442. Bellydancing WednesdayÐSunday. Reservations recommended; pre-orders required for mechoui.
Cinetopia, 11700 SE 7th St., Vancouver, Wash., 1-877-608-2800, www.cinetopiatheaters.com.
Acropolis, 8325 SE McLoughlin Blvd., 231-9611. 21+.
Der Rheinlander, 5035 NE Sandy Blvd., 288-5503. Reservations recommended.