By: Kate Silver, Crain’s

The era: the 1950s. The scene: tuxedoed waiters pushing around a traditional gueridon cart, preparing meals tableside, like steak Diane, chateaubriand, cherries jubilee and bananas Foster — all classic dishes that evoke a certain je ne sais quoi.

 - Caesar salad prepared tableside at David Burke's Primehouse
Caesar salad prepared tableside at David Burke’s Primehouse

Today, the first word that comes to mind after “tableside” may well be “guacamole,” but if you look hard enough around Chicago, you’ll see that tableside dinner theater hasn’t taken an intermission. In fact, it seems bolstered by the house-made, artisanal movement, in which diners are chasing new experiences as much as they’re seeking a delicious meal. And we’re not just talking about flaming cheese here.

Recently, at Sepia, I watched a server dissect a skate wing before my eyes, gently carving into the angelic appendage and ever so carefully removing the fan of cartilage. At Turquoise Restaurant & Cafe, I sat, mesmerized, as across the room a waiter piled a salt mountain over a fish and then lit it on fire. Restaurant patrons oohed and aahed, and, as the server skinned and deboned the dish, at least one of us wished we’d gotten the flaming fish.

Whether carving chateaubriand, deboning Dover sole or tossing Caesar salads, steakhouses are a solid standby for food-service theatrics. David Burke’s Primehouse continues that tradition with three items, including the Caesarista, a classic Caesar salad prepared as you watch. Order the banana split sundae and you’ll see where the “salted” in the salted caramel ice cream comes from: The frozen confection is actually served tableside on a brick of Himalayan salt, and then the server assembles the sundae. With the signature cake in a can, diners are invited to slurp on beaters as the staff frosts your party’s cake.

 - Travelle has launched tableside cocktail cart service.
Travelle has launched tableside cocktail cart service.

And then there are cocktails. Travelle Bar & Lounge recently joined in the “Mad Men”-era madness and launched a new tableside cocktail cart, which traverses the mid- century modern lounge at the Langham to dramatically prepare beverages, such as the Manhattan-inspired Madhattan. At L2O, if you order a cocktail, you’re also in for a show. A cart arrives carrying all the necessities for the libation at hand, from Sazeracs to gin and tonics, with house-made tonic.

Many of the courses also are prepared tableside, and, based on the season, you might see cuts of turbot boned and skinned or scallops removed from their shells before you.

“Fine dining, for a while, I think became really sort of stuffy, and this helps lighten the mood,” says Dan Page, a manager at L2O. “People are looking for more than just going out to eat and having plates put down in front of them. I think it’s really brought more excitement into the dining room.”

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