PLAY WITH YOUR FOOD
It's almost always cheaper to prepare a meal at home than eat out, but there are ways to making eating out worth your while. Whether at a bricks-and-mortar restaurant or an annual event, a live experience can be much more valuable than an ordinary meal. At these lively restaurants and festivals, you'll be treated to plenty of entertainment that will make the splurge of dining out feel worth it.
Benihana is a nationwide chain of teppanyaki restaurants known for coordinated chefs preparing orders of steak, shrimp, fried rice, and more on a steaming-hot steel grill. Their food is usually rich with umami flavor and served in generous portions, and the chefs are skilled entertainers.
The nine locations of Medieval Times enthrall families with nightly theatrical performances of knights battling on horseback with swords and shields. Regular admission is $62 for adults and $37 for children but includes a hearty meal with choice of alcoholic or non-alcoholic libations.
BARN DINNER THEATRE
At the nation's longest continually operating dinner theater, the Barn Dinner Theatre in Greensboro, North Carolina, the night begins with a traditional buffet, including salad bar and carving station. Then a stage descends from the ceiling and the night's performance begins. Prices vary by seat location and date, starting at $43 for adults and $21.50 for children.
Chefs at Atlanta's Gunshow restaurant wheel dishes to diners on wooden carts from an open-style kitchen, then assemble them tableside. It's a fun process that makes reasonably priced dishes such as Berkshire pork belly and seared steelhead even more mouthwatering.
BIG APPLE BARBECUE BLOCK PARTY
Pit crews roast whole hogs against a backdrop of Manhattan skyline at the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party. Claiming to be the nation's largest festival dedicated to barbecue, the free event encompasses several blocks around Madison Square Park in June and has a stage with live performances all weekend long.
THE HARVEST VINE
The Harvest Vine is a hearty Basque kitchen in the heart of Seattle's Central District, renowned for its wine selection, sheep's milk cheese plates, and tapas such as salt-cod-potato mousse. Sit at the counter to watch chefs carve meats in an open kitchen, chatting with guests in their downtime.
WORLD'S BIGGEST FISH FRY
The World's Biggest Fish Fry is a landmark free event that takes place annually in Paris, Tennessee, in the final full week of April, centered on a two-hour grand parade and a "fish tent" that serves more than 12,500 pounds of catfish. Other entertainment includes races, rodeos, dances, and art booths.
In Korean barbecue, waiters brings marbled raw meats to the table so they can sizzle atop the gas grills installed in each table before being eaten. There are two Jongro BBQ locations in New York -- in Koreatown and Flushing -- to try; some call it the best Korean in Koreatown.
The Chicago Brauhaus re-creates a Bavarian beer hall in Chicago's historically German Lincoln Square neighborhood, complete with enormous bratwursts and imported beers served in steins. Guests can dance to traditional tunes by house band the Brauhaus Trio.
FLYING J RANCH
Celebrate cowboy culture and cuisine at Alto, New Mexico's Flying J Ranch, a seasonal family dinner experience with souvenir shops, a blacksmith shop, pony rides, a pistol shoot, and staged gunfight. Admission ($27 for adults, $15 for children) also buys a chuckwagon meal of brisket and baked beans and live Western music.
SID GOLD'S REQUEST ROOM
Head to the back of Sid Gold's Request Room in New York to find a piano bar where guests are encouraged to request their favorites and even lead the crowd in a community rendition. With some of the city's best karaoke comes a bar menu of pizzas, salads, and high-end cocktails.
Chicago barbecue and blues come together at Smoke Daddy, a Wicker Park restaurant with briskets and burgers cooked in a "lil red smoker." Alongside daily specials on draft beer and barbecue favorites, the place hosts live jazz and blues seven nights a week.
The waiters are the performers at New York's Sushi Roxx, inspired by Tokyo nightlife, where staff pause their service to partake in a multimedia music and dance performance. This club-like dining destination boasts fresh sushi and fusion dishes such as tuna flatbread pizza.
Nicola's Restaurant is just a homey and authentic Lebanese restaurant on most nights, but on Fridays and Saturdays after 8 p.m., the Atlanta dining room becomes a backdrop for bedazzled belly dancers. Don't be surprised when people join in after finishing their shawarma.
OUTTA CONTROL MAGIC COMEDY DINNER SHOW
Admission at Orlando, Florida's Outta Control Magic Comedy Dinner Show ($30 for adults, $20 for children) includes all-you-can-eat pizza, drinks, salad, and more, as well as a performance usually headlined by Tony Brent, known for his improvisational skills, impersonations, and penchant for involving the audience in the show.
New York's Aburiya Kinnosuke has an authentic ambience with Eastern-style table seatings, and an open kitchen where guests can watch chefs carefully slice sashimi or grill high-quality meats over smoky charcoal grills.
Nikko is a New York teppanyaki restaurant where guests can simply enjoy hearty food and cheap happy hour drinks. Ordering the special service means watching theatrical chefs make a lively show of cooking on steel grills -- and sometimes even shoot sake from a bottle into diners' mouths from a distance.
KING + DUKE
King + Duke uses wood fire in a 24-foot open hearth to prepare American fare, so guests seated at the chef's counter won't just be entertained watching "Good Breed Chicken" and roasted vegetable toast be made -- they'll likely be warmed as well.
Hofbräuhaus Chicago is a faithful recreation of Munich's own 400-year-old Hofbräuhaus, featuring the familiar enormous beer steins, staff in lederhosen, and breaded schnitzel. Featured bands play the spirited beer hall seven nights a week and move outside to the traditional biergarten in summer.
UNA PIZZA NAPOLETANA
The decor and entertainment is minimalist at San Francisco's Una Pizza Napoletana, where the tables are arranged around an open kitchen. Chef Anthony Mangieri prepares the same five traditional pies (six on Saturdays) nightly while diners watch the dough being formed and pizzas bake within a wood-fire, tiled brick oven.
WU'S OPEN KITCHEN
A stainless-steel exhibition kitchen is the centerpiece of Wu's Open Kitchen, with two locations around Portland, Oregon. Order familiar Chinese dishes never done better (try the kung pao chicken) and watch the chefs chop and fry from the comfort of your seat.
REDLAND FISH FRY & SEAFOOD FESTIVAL
Chefs prepare seafood with unique international flavors at Miami's Redland Fish Fry & Seafood Festival in November. Admission of $8 for adults (free for children) includes music and activities set in a tropical botanical garden. The event is announced annually in October.
INTERNATIONAL BAR-B-Q FESTIVAL
Every second weekend of May, Owensboro, Kentucky, hosts hickory-smoke fires and hungry diners at the International Bar-B-Q Festival. There's free entry to a park full of booths with barbecue competing for the Governor's Cup, as well as crafts, shopping, and entertainment such as square dancing and live music.
MURRY'S DINNER PLAYHOUSE
The performances at Murry's Dinner Theatre in Little Rock, Arkansas, range from famous musicals to little-known comedies, and each is paired with a themed buffet meal. Prices start at $33 for adults, including meals with such dishes as pit-roasted beef, chicken marsala, and savory bread pudding. Children's admission is $23.
The "bullpen" kitchen at San Francisco's Aatxe gives diners at dual counters a view of chefs preparing hearty Basque dishes of marinated seafood and Spanish fried rice with impressive technique.
PIRATE'S DINNER ADVENTURE
Pirate's Dinner Adventure in Orlando, Florida, and Buena Park, California, lets families participate in staged swashbuckling aboard a replicated 18th-century ship. The feast included in the admission price ($62 for adults and $37 for children) comes with non-alcoholic beverages and appetizers, as well as a vegetarian option.
The family-owned hole-in-the-wall Oyster House in Studio City, California, has some of the best values for seafood and stand-up comedy in the Los Angeles area. Come enjoy cheap oyster shooters ($1.25, or a half-dozen for $6) and free comedy every Wednesday night from 9:30 to midnight, when comedians regularly featured in Hollywood's hottest clubs perform without the typical two-drink minimum.
Watch gourmet seasonal meals come together at the chef's counter in Better Half, a casual foodie's paradise in Atlanta. Guests can watch from just across a counter as chefs staff sear flank steaks and prepare their signature silk-handkerchief pasta.
Lexington, North Carolina, backs a bold claim of being the barbecue capital of the world with a free, annual one-day Barbecue Festival, when as many as 200,000 attendees sample signature specialties such as hickory pork shoulder and enjoy animal races, car shows, golf tournaments, and live music.