The theatrics of the dining room come in many forms, but one timeless feature of a memorable experience is an original tableside presentation. I’m not talking about servers being forced to freestyle “Happy Birthday” while a sad candle sticks out from a cupcake. I’m also not referring to extravagant disruptions, like Swift and Sons’ in-house magician or everybody at Disney World’s 50’s Prime Time Café. I mean why we dine at a restaurant in the first place: the food.
Though some obscure tableside performances like the Bananas Foster at Brennan’s catch on across the country, a large majority of what we remember from our night out lives and dies with the success of one establishment.
But what makes a memorable tableside presentation stand out from the average point-and-pick dessert cart or an over-the-top gimmick that screams, “We’re distracting you because the food is not that good here”? Despite so many dishes being put in the spotlight these days, what unites the meals that are most memorable are a connection to simplicity, a tasty backstory, and the oddly delightful, enthusiastic speech from your server about why it is you’re never going to forget eating this.
Fresh pepper (but not from a grinder)
The sight of an adult reaching over a table and aggressively sprinkling black pepper from a comically sized grinder until you shout STOP is something that’s become synonymous with Italian-style fine dining.
However, Brooklyn’s Antica Pesa is doing things a bit differently. “The fresh pepper tableside experience is provided to customize the flavors of the pasta, and it’s something we have always done at our location in Rome,” explains Lorenzo Panella, a co-owner of Antica Pesa. By fresh pepper, Panella is referring to a tray of Devil Finger, jalapeño, and habanero peppers presented tableside before being grated over a plate of pasta, usually a cacio e pepe or a rigatoni all’amatriciana. The simplicity of this presentation combined with the actual heat of the peppers on the pasta is a reminder that many tasty traditions are always being discovered.
Many times, a memorable tableside presentation is needed to ensure the best possible guest experience. At Majorelle in Manhattan, a restaurant rooted in French culinary tradition, frog legs sauteed in garlic and butter are presented to the guests on a sizzle platter deglazed in lemon for a very specific reason. “The minute the frog legs stop cooking, they start to lose flavor. Serving them tableside allows the frog legs to cook right up until they are served,” explains Wade Pirie, the director of operations at Majorelle.
While sizzling fajitas have already swept the nation, perhaps hot garlic and butter drenched frog legs or Au Za’atar’s spinning shawarma tower, which allows guests to slice their own meat and vegetables straight off a mini spit that’s placed on the table, can catch on beyond just their addresses.
You don’t always need a carving cart
While America is indebted to Lawry’s The Prime Rib for making guests pay attention to their server by popularizing the prime rib cart and spinning bowl salad, today’s food-obsessed crowd is more easily moved by subtle pours and an enchanting backstory.
At Auburn in Los Angeles, chef Eric Bost has found a way to make sunchokes a must-have menu item in what could be considered a riff on fondue, though you probably shouldn’t ask for skewers here. The sunchokes are roasted on a hearth and served with seeds and flowers, and Bost adds a bowl of melted Epoisses, a potent and creamy cheese, that your server scoops on top. The presentation is a reminder that vegetables are just as equally sharing the spotlight as seafood and beef when it comes to mesmerizing guests, and that anything with melted cheese poured on top is bound to build a fan base.
Turning your dish into a two-part play
Vespertine, a Los Angeles restaurant that represents what would happen if a chef directed Sleep No More, is one location that’s embraced nontraditional storytelling during the meal. And like any theatrical production, one of its cast members, the squab, appears in two acts. In the opening scene, squab is presented whole, wrapped in an aromatic cage of smoked juniper. Once cut open, the pigeon is plated alongside endives braised in black currant and the juices of the bird.
Then there’s a brief intermission. The bird is taken back to the kitchen in order to have its legs removed, grilled, and dipped in dried crushed rose petals. The squab legs are then returned to guests for the final tragic act of saying goodbye to a meal most memorable. “It’s a beautiful and almost shocking presentation,” says Vespertine’s chef Jordan Kahn. “But it all creates a very special and lingering moment as you near the close of your meal.”
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