By Brian Jewell
Mealtime isn’t just about eating anymore. For today’s travel groups, exciting experiences matter just as much as menus, and restaurants that deliver extraordinary ambiance and memorable encounters have become favorite dining destinations.
Increasing interest in culinary travel has led some cities to develop over-the-top restaurants for groups.
“It’s in high demand right now,” said Crystal Hayes, tourism manager for the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau. “In today’s economy, groups want more for the money they’re paying. It’s really more about an experience and becoming immersed in what you’re doing. So we really try to focus on entertainment with the meals, as opposed to just a good group price.”
Groups visiting Philadelphia have a lot of options for memorable meal experiences. City Tavern re-creates a pub where the Founding Fathers ate during their drafting of the Declaration of Independence, complete with period-correct cutlery and menu items that date back to the 1700s. A special program called Independence After Hours gives groups a dinner there with a costumed colonial character who then “sneaks” them into Independence Hall to see the historic building by night.
Creative planners can find an array of other meal experiences in Philadelphia as well, from Chinatown walking tours to food truck rallies and an Italian murder-mystery dinner theater.
In Kansas City, Kan., the Legends shopping complex is home to a number of one-of-a-kind restaurants that offer otherworldly guest experiences. T-Rex Café has a prehistoric theme that extends well beyond its meals.
“We give groups a lot of time to walk around the building,” said Kerry Green, group manager at the Kansas City, Kansas Convention and Visitors Bureau. “There’s a 125-foot-long dinosaur skeleton at the front door. There are ice caves, meteor showers and geysers going off all the time. People can walk around and look at aquariums or dig in a fossil pit.”
A Pan-Asian restaurant at the complex offers groups the chance to take part in specialty tableside cooking demonstrations. Another restaurant called Backfire Barbeque features vintage motorcycles, as well as choppers built by celebrity designers.
In San Antonio, dinnertime makes a perfect opportunity for groups to experience the city’s ethnic heritage firsthand. At Mi Tierra, the city’s iconic Mexican restaurant, groups take some time to walk through various dining rooms, each decorated with a different theme, among them local history, murals, and Christmas in Texas.
At Aldaco’s, groups can have a hands-on culinary experience with a local celebrity chef in addition to their meals.
“The owner, Blanca Aldaco, is one of the people that you see on regional and national TV talking about her famous dishes,” said Ronnie Price, assistant director of the San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau. “She leads margarita classes and enchilada-making classes. She walks you through some Mexican food skills while you’re eating. You get a unique taste of the people of this city.”