Why did the Dinner Theater die?

Ring the bells, for the Dinner Theater is no more.

Ok, I’m being slightly dramatic.  There are a few dinner theaters still around serving up so-so steaks, and the National Dinner Theatre Association is still up and running (even though it only has 20 members), but the golden era of eating Chicken Marsala while seeing a performance of Hello Dolly seems to have come to an untimely end.

I remember the early 90s, when there were about 20 Dinner Theatres in the Baltimore area alone!  (I closed one of those B’more theaters with a production of Evita.)  And every city seemed to have at least one.  Sure, they were the butt of a bunch of jokes (usually when an actor was referring to his/her career hitting the skids), but what wasn’t to love about a dinner theater:  a musical, a meal, and all in the same place, and for one low price!

So what happened?

I’m not exactly sure.  “Dinner and a show” seems to be an easy combination to sell.  And a theater having another way to make money besides just ticket sales seems like a great way to add to the bottom line.  Was it that there were too many theaters period, dinner or not?  Was it an older audience thing, whereas today’s crowds don’t want to sit in the same place for a two and a half hour show and a two hour meal?  Is it because theater is a luxury purchase, so saving a few bucks by “showing where you eat” worth it?

Unfortunately for us, the Dinner Theater seems to have gone the way of the Drive-In, which in theory seems to be a cool way to consume a movie, but in practicality just doesn’t seem to fit with a consumer’s lifestyle.

 

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Comments
  • Joe Deer says:

    I grew up in the Tampa/St. Pete area during the 60s & 70s – the heyday and heart of dinner theatre. Saw many great stars in more than credible productions. Also, a fair amount of star package schlock. But, when I came into performing, I learned the tradition of live theatre doing two week rehearsal, 10 week runs of classic musicals with big stars (Donald O’Connor, etc.) and many very experienced hands in smaller roles – plus the green kids like me. This was real apprenticeship at the feet of masters and excellent craftsmen and women. So sorry to see this link between generations gone. The theatre is not better for the segregation of union (experienced) and non-union (emerging)talent. I think DT died because the tradition of the supper club passed with its audience – the retirees who came of age when that was a tradition.

  • Billy Flood says:

    Derby Dinner Playhouse in Clarksville IN has been running in the black for 30 years. Several Broadway stars including Sara Gettlefinger have trod the boards there. I never understood why dinner theaters elsewhere have closed. I don’t get spending 35 dollars for a burger at Angus Mcindoe and then going to see a show, when you can do the same and pay far less at dinner theaters. I don’t know about other DTs, but Derby Dinner auditions in NYC every year, and routinely has NYC actors in their shows.

  • Andrew Michael Storm says:

    Actually, here in Fort Myers Florida we have a VERY successful dinner Theater called the Broadway Palm Dinner Theater. They do extremely well! And they do very ambitious business! They will soon begin their 21st Season in August of this year and the Season includes …BURT AND ME, CATS, SWINGIN’ CHRISTMAS, SOUTH PACIFIC, LES MISERABLES, THE MUSIC MAN, MID-LIFE THE CRISIS MUSICAL,and JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAM COAT. They also have a large Theater in Arizona. They do yer-round business, not only with the seasonal visitors but with the locals. We, of course, have a heavy population of Seniors so that is a big boon to their business I am sure (as does the Arizona area where their Theater is located) but their business is thriving! And they use Broadway level talent in their shows!!

    • Will Prather says:

      Thanks Andrew and I appreciate the kind words about my theatre in Fort Myers. Unfortunately, we sold out theatre in Mesa, AZ to a new operator, but both Fort Myers (21 years) and the Dutch Apple in Lancaster (26 years) are going strong and doing well!

  • Evelyn Zilberman says:

    What about Chanhassen and Tobys? These dinner theaters are alive and well, additionally they are producing really great shows and growing our talent pool. I don’t think the dinner theater is dead – not while 4H is alive at least. . . and all those people who go to renaissance fairs and Medieval Times . . .

  • Will Prather says:

    Hey Ken. Thanks for this post and you are correct that there has been a significant decrease in the number of dinner theatres throughout the country, but not all of us are going the way of the drive thru! The successful ones that remain like my two, Beef and Boards in Indianapolis,Derby Dinner Playhouse in Louisville, Fireside in Wisconsin, the New Theare in Kansas City, Arizona Broadway in Phoenix, and others across the country have continued to prosper by innovating ourselves and remaining committed to delivering a strong product that combines quality food, great productions, service with a smile, all at a great value for the consumers entertainment dollar. It certainly has not been easy and we all face challenges, but those of us who do it right and are committed to their mission will continue to provide a quality dinner theatre experience for years to come. It is also important to note that many of us provide a fertile training ground for hundreds of mostly non-equity performers who are honing their trades and getting those early credits that enables them to advance their careers to obtain their goals. I bet you would be hard pressed to find a company of actors on Broadway that doesn’t have at least one if not multiple actors with credits at some point in their early career when they graced the boards of a dinner theatre. I know I have alums currently in Once, Jersey Boys, Wicked, and heck, even Jonathan Groff performed in a children’s show at my theare in Lancaster, PA when he was growing up. Although dinner theatres have often been the butt of jokes within the industry for as long as I can remember, we do produce a valuable product that has is supported by millions of customers on an annual basis. And to toot my own horn, there aren’t a whole lot of regional theatre companies that produce nearly 30 shows per year, employ over 300 employees, grossed over 13 million dollars last year and entertained nearly half a million guests! The future for “chew and view” is bright as long as the people who own them make the right decisions and stay true to their mission. Thanks Ken and Rage On my friend!

  • Michael Edwards says:

    Being part of the “dinner theatre” scene for almost 3 decades (1970-2005)I relish the experience and the chutzpa of the actors and directors who wanted to do their best. We took chances and did things because no one told us we couldnt. The Producer wanted maximum bang for minimum buck and often they got more than they paid for.It was a great university,often of what NOT to do but it comes with a history of drama threats,weapons,violence and bribes…and that was OFF stage. (anyone remember the magic stage? I think Chaffins Barn in Nashville is the only one still operating and doing good business…)
    Hooray for a grand era…it kept a lot of actors working and learning.

    • Thank you my Dear Michael. John & Daddy John has always spoke so highly of you. Chaffin’s is going into there 47th Season of producing great shows and providing wonderful buffet at the cost of going to the movies. We still have the original barn “magic” stage that descends from the ceiling to the center of the theatre giving every audience member an excellent view of the action. We are a landmark in Nashville…ALL about making special memories with five generations still attending. For the price there are not too many entertainment places that can provide an unforgettable evening of dinner and theatre. Thank you Michael and I look forward to seeing you in the near future. Visit National Dinner Theatre Association website and see how many wonderful theatres are still there.

  • Jonathan Randall says:

    Incredible timing as we are mourning the loss this week of our dinner theatre in Toronto (well, Mississauga which is a suburb of 1 million) which announced it is shutting down at then end of next month. A Guinness record holder for most shows produced and once home to 18,000 subscribers will soon shut its doors too: http://www.bramptonguardian.com/news/article/1613780–curtain-comes-down-at-stage-west-after-27-years

  • Michael Orzechowski says:

    Ken, I feel ya, buddy! Living in Baltimore and growing up in the 90’s, I know how awesome dinner theatre used to be. You’re 110% right. The ONLY lasting one is Toby’s and, honestly, I miss it! Thanks for the Baltimore shout out, and I wish it would pick back up too!

  • Michael Orzechowski says:

    Ken, I feel ya, buddy! Living in Baltimore and growing up in the 90’s, I know how awesome dinner theatre used to be. You’re 110% right. The ONLY lasting one is Toby’s and, honestly, I miss it! Thanks for the Baltimore shout out, and I wish it would pick back up too!

    Ps- I still live in Baltimore and and STILL see those Toby’s shows! Never giving up hope on ’em!

  • Matt says:

    Interesting post. I was recently checking out the dinner theater scene while looking for venues for my musical Flambé Dreams. We’re looking at finding a space where we can do dinner and a show, but in this case the courses and the food will be integrated into the whole theatrical experience. We’re taking dinner theater to a whole new level!

    • Aaron says:

      Are you aware of Rick Bayless/Lookingglass’s recent collaboration, Cascabel? Basically a similar, non-musical idea. Sold like hotcakes.

  • Allie Couture says:

    My husband and I joke that, between the two of us, we’ve worked at every dinner theater in the country! But all kidding aside, our time at these theaters hold the most special place in our hearts… And not just because we met there! I am forever grateful to Will Prather, of Broadway Palm and Dutch Apple, and to Bekki Jo Schneider, of Derby Dinner Playhouse, for giving me such wonderful opportunities and experience in my early career. This was my on-the-job conservatory training. What saddens me most about the idea of an industry demise is that young actors like me will not have the opportunity for experience and learning that we had. Not that these shows are only comprised of young actors! There are plenty of wonderful, seasoned actors (both union and non-union) who enrich the tapestry of these ensembles. As for the theaters that continue to thrive; I’ve noticed that they know and respect their audience, they treat their employees like family, and they always work to improve their product. My husband and I still go out of our way to visit and see shows at these theaters, and are always impressed, and love to soak in the nostalgia! Although I’m just returning to my acting career after babies, my husband is in the cast of a hit Broadway show- all thanks to his time spent at the dinner theaters!

  • LA Producer says:

    I was in Indianapolis during the early 1990’s. Beef and Boards is still active! Although seeing “Menopause The Musical” more than once might be a bit much, it’s nice they’re still there. 🙂

  • T says:

    Elephant Pursued By a Bear has combined dinner and theater into a great experience right here in New York City. A fantastic sense of community, exciting work and great food to top it off. I don’t know if they would describe themselves as dinner theater in the traditional sense, but definitely worth seeing.

  • Michael L. says:

    While I don’t mean to offend any of the wonderful artists who have worked at dinner theaters, and for whom those opportunities helped launch careers and provided terrific training, I can only share why I stopped going to these venues (in the early ’90’s) — the quality of the work wasn’t compelling.
    The few dinner theaters I attended focused on cheesy, uninspiring sketch-comedy, and/or predictable audience interactions (e.g.: home-spun murder mysteries).
    Beyond that, the food wasn’t anything special.

    The dinner theatre experiences I recall were typically in comedy improv type environments, with wait-staff getting drink orders between scenes/acts, and audiences there to socialize more than giving their full attention to the show.

    The producers focused on providing a fun night out, which is fine; however, I seek something more when I go to the theatre: to be awakened and touched by artists reflecting what it is to be human. That’s a meal I wasn’t served, and I almost always left hungry.

  • Diana Lipkus says:

    In Columbus Ohio we have “shadowbox theater”. And the food is great! And they have a beautiful exquisite new building with a great theater and an attached café where they do small performances. The architecture and beauty of the facility and location in a highly popular trendy district add to the fun. They recently had a collaboration between their own theater and “Opera Columbus”. Innovative thinking, fun original scripts, and a not for for-profit business set up Along with great food have been successful here. I think they would be a great role model for other Dinner Theatres.

  • Dinner theatre is alive and well here in the Metro Detroit area! We serve up traditional theatre and improvisational shows for the general public and as fundraisers for non-profits, and have been doing very well! I think the general theatre-going public has forgotten about dinner theatre. Many comments we receive after our shows are from people who are surprised at how much fun they have. It seems they’ve gotten used to just sitting in a dark movie theatre and watching a movie – we pull them on stage and make them PART of the show – and they love it! Our “Murder at the Sands” is a Rat Pack Show – everyone is transported to 1960 Vegas and are entertained by Frank, Dean and Sammy. Or time travel back to 1912 with our Titanic Weekend at Grand Hotel, where guests board the ship and are entertained by over a dozen famous 1st Class passengers. We have a ball doing them – and the public loves them – so no, I’d say dinner theatre is NOT dead – it’s alive and well!

  • Cash says:

    My only experience of dinner theater was seeing two friends at Candlelight Dinner Playhouse near Denver in the late 1990s–they played Lazar Wolf and Yenta in “Fiddler on the Roof.” Tevye’s three daughters were about as Jewish as Kansas in August, but the show was quite good. The food, though–oy gevalt!

  • Marion says:

    Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 brings the dinner theatre to NYC

  • David Arthur says:

    Dinner Theater was never cool. Even forty years ago, and in its heyday, it was something that a suburban married or dating couple attended due to the ease in which they could have an evening out, without driving somewhere else. There were first class joints like the Candlelight outside of Chicago, that copied step for step the Broadway originals, impossible now with SSDC, Thank God, but none the less, audiences FELT they were watching something original,special, and only twenty miles away from their homes. Aside from that, that was the audience that would have dinner and be happy to sit through HELLO DOLLY! for the third time. Why not?! It’s a great show, and dinner along side it makes the whole thing as familiar as the Salisbury Steak you continue to order time after time. RENT, SPRING AWAKENING, and LES MISERABLE are not dinner theater fare – at least not for the older crowd, and I think that’s why it died. If some industrious producer could figure out a way to update this brilliant in house “event” it wouldn’t die the death of the beloved variety show on T.V., – the last true re-incarnation of what was the world of vaudeville.

  • Clair Sedore says:

    The same thing is happening in Toronto, Stage
    West Dinner Theatre, 5400 Dixie Road and Eglinton Avenues – started in 1986,a vehicle for television stars initially, is closing its doors –
    after 27 years on June 30/13 – for some reason the audiences just dwindled

  • Richard Pacheco says:

    Actually here in the Massachusetts Rode Island area there are still dinner theaters. In Newport there is the Newport Playhouse and in Boston there is Comedy Theater and I have worked at both of them. Both seem to be thriving and doing well. There might even be some others that I am not aware of in these areas.

  • George Rady says:

    Sorry, gotta completely dis-agree on this one…

    (Remember the first Personal Digital Assistances PDAs? They are now called “cell phones” but were written of… and THIS is the significance… when they were too BIG, BULKY, Non-connected and cumbersome!)

    I just got back from a year in North Carolina and hit the only Dinner Theatre in that area “The Barnyard” (the oldest in the country IF you can believe their claim…)

    And I pitched several restaurants on converting to a Dinner Theatre, but, as Ken relates, they balked for all the stated reasons.

    Here’s why I think this is “PDA thinking”

    The std $20 live theatre ticket is about to come up against the REALITY that Federal Govt is spending One Trillion dollars more than it takes in – annually – now… and the State Govts are consuming the bulk of that… this National run Ponzi scheme is coming to an end… and Federal/State subsidized “theatre” along with 501c are going to be the – least – likely to draw a tear when they go bye-bye…

    So the $20 Ticket is simply not enough to sustain a production, even in the most modest provincial settings.

    So let’s say we are not talking about “theatre” but any other (rationale) investment… my price point is $40 per ticket and that would have to include dinner to make it worth everyone’s while (even the most devote Theatre Goer in the Provinces is not going to pay $40 for a local production when they have gotten used to $20… at that increase they will simple forgo – going to Live Theater! But – add “dinner” for which they already pay about $20 and it sounds like a good deal… “Hmmm, I used to pay $20 for a Theatre Tickets and I used to pay $20 for dinner… so it makes sense to pay… $40!”)

    And, at $40 per ticket, 100 seats, eight performances a week, we are talking about a budget of $32K per week (to break even and provided that you can fill that house, of course…) I don’t know about You Off, Off-Off and Broadway Producers, but that’s a fair starting point for a small business owner to start strategizing around (now for the drinks, and desserts…)

    By my calculation, that leaves room for a $500 stipend for actors per week… and the possibility of making tips if they choose to join the wait staff…

    What! I’m an Actor! Not a Waiter!!! Do you wanna earn a living? Sorry in an age when six figure execs are losing their jobs and can only find work (if luck!) as business analysts for half their former income and NO benefits… someone is not smelling the coffee and how it’s gonna be brewed in the coming years and foreseeable future.

    So it comes down to the product.

    The worst part of Dinner Theatre… has been the “dinner” and that has GOT to come up to the standard of, well, what you get for $20 a meal at most middling restaurants today (outside of the Big Cities) and those restaurants wouldn’t stay in business if they couldn’t keep serving meals at $20 a pop and make, say, 50% a plate… so the insensitive for the restaurant is that they stand a chance of bringing a couple back – more than once a month… something most restaurants are NOT able to do in these ever-getting-harder economic tymes… hence the pitch!

    Which leaves us with the “Theatre”

    Sorry the biggest problem with Dinner Theatre has been the – scale – of the productions (mostly named above) no one wants to see “Les Miz” or “Phantom” in a cramped Dinner Theatre… “Cabaret” maybe, but theatre people are fooling themselves if they think that – trying to fit a “square peg in a round hole “is gonna work… just because everyone – in – the company loves the show. The mainstream audience will simply see a cast, crew over matched by excepted production values… and (quietly) not come back.

    Nor does this mainstream in Middle America want to see “cutting edgy, socially relevant, challenging dramas” sorry, the rest of America is simple NOT the New York audience… so the latest Off-Off-Broadway Hit (mostly with critics) will not play in the Provinces… people are not going to lay out $40 to be lectured to… they MAY spend $40 to be “entertained” and by that I mean… laugh, cry, hope, reminisce… keep in mind that BULK of their audiences are going to be retired couples and they will have their OWN view of the world. Offend that and you are done.

    And, finally, no “cheap-o-s” no One Wo(M)an shows, or two character One Acts, stretched out for two hours… again, New York audiences are very indulgent and understanding… provincial audiences – not so much – unless the One Man is a Celebrity in good standing… and even then Iffy.

    You want a perfect play to put on for a Dinner Theatre… “The Heiress” or any of the other small cast (under 10) solid sentimental dramas or not-offensive comedies Neil Simon’s works.

    “Meat and Potatoes” Dinner Theatre, in my book, will become and very practical way to keep Live Theatre available (waaay) Off Broadway… once we realize that the latest “quantitative easing” of the Stock Market is only the last gasp before the Fall… and people will still want to make a living in this industry, outside of NYC.

    g

    Oh, p.s. this will ONLY work in Right-to-Work states… no one (unless I missed it) mentioned that the Actor Equity Dinner Theatre contract makes the production costs so high that only lightning in a bottle will ever stand a chance to make its money back… no sane small business person would bother with the risk.

  • George Rady says:

    Let me nail down the last point (as someone emailed me privately…)

    Off and, especially, Off-Off Broadway take the enormous risk of staging Equity and Equity Waiver Showcases… based on the HOPE that the production will catch fire and suddenly that VAST New York audience will decided they HAVE to see this work (of the hundreds of other that they pass on…)

    That’s all fine and dandy, but Dinner Theatre can not operate on those metrics because there simply is NOT “vast” audience that will stream thru the doors if critics and WOM is positive…

    The Dinner Theatre must bring – back – the audience and grow it over a number of seasons and THAT will be based more on Local Actors that that theatre has cultivated who want to see the people they identify with… do something else… it’s closer to people who attend the Opera, season after season – for the Singers and not the well know music and plot. So being able to sustain a tight company of players and giving the audience a standard repretoiry of works is what is going to sustain and grow a Dinner Theatre….

    And – which is why – a producer simply can NOT risk one production that is going to offend the critical mass of that audience… the producer has GOT to KNOW the audience and how far they can do (what may be consider acceptably edgy Off-Off Broadway…)

    Perhaps, because I come at this from – outside – the Theatre scene… it is clearer to me… that You don’t decide to push
    “New Coke” when your audience likes “Coke” as it is… you’ll never get a 2nd chance to rebrand your product as “Coke Classic”

    g

  • Zanne Hall says:

    What about interactive murder mysteries? I produced/directed/wrote such & made a few bucks for myself & the artistic personnel.

  • How very grand that so many professionals remember Derby Dinner Playhouse! Thank you.

    Yes! Dinner theatre is very much alive. Here in Indiana there are two very sucessful dinner theatres performing to over 400,000 people a year.

    Derby Dinner Playhouse entertains over 200,000 people a year with a budget of $5.7 million. We do over 450 performances a year. We also hire professional actors and union orchestra. We are definitely alive.

    We are also doing this without donations, tax breaks, or being a burden to our community budgets.

    Before you announce the “death” – please do your homework.

    • Just My Opinion says:

      The author clearly states that there are still some dinner theatres in existence. However, the number pales in comparison to the “golden era” of dinner theatres.

      “Ring the bells, for the Dinner Theater is no more.

      Ok, I’m being slightly dramatic. There are a few dinner theaters still around…” “and the National Dinner Theatre Association is still up and running (even though it only has 20 members),…”

      CONGRATULATIONS on your success! I wish you many more wonderful years of entertaining.

  • Brady says:

    Dinner Theatre is a terrible brand. There are wonderful exceptions. The dinner theatre brand has been ruined by substandard food and entertainment fare- and I think that’s what Ken was referencing in the initial post.
    I always seek out theatre when I travel, but I have learned to avoid those insipid ‘sketch comedy’ dinner theatres.
    There are some really good dinner theatres- like the ones mentioned above- but these are the exceptions, and not the rule.
    I was recently gifted tickets to a dinner theatre. The tickets were free. Drinks and gratuities were not included. The food was terrible. The cast and production values were high school quality. I spent over 100$ on drinks and gratuity- and this is for a waiter who wouldn’t refill our water glasses. When I asked for a program (as I always do), I was told there were none- only to see other patrons in the lobby holding theirs!
    I love the theatre. I want to see great shows.
    But if I’m paying for dinner and a show, I don’t want cheap food and cheap entertainment, I still want quality.

  • I would say there is a renaissance of a new type of dinner theater. Mystery Dinner Theaters are on the up and up. With an extremely low start up cost and with hotels and restaurants benefiting from hosting them there is new dinners theaters opening each year. Now of course these productions are nowhere near the production value of “Evita” or “Hello Dolly” but any production that employs actors I think deserves to be saluted.

  • Steven Masone says:

    I started a Dinner Theatre in Sacramento circa 1976. The first for that city. Selling it at it’s prime I watched it change owners and names several times. My attendance records still stand for selling over five thousand tickets the first month opening with Kiss Me Kate. We were sold out usually an average 2-3 weeks in advance. Musical Theatre was my formula. We hired summer-stock performers casting in Hollywood and built a strong resident company. The last Dinner Theatre in Sacramento closed about 4 years ago because they had no identity, and tried to save money doing too many original and lesser known shows. The winning formula is Musicals. The latest NEA survey shows musical plays almost doubled attendance numbers over non-musicals. One factor not mentioned that led to lower attendance for Dinner Theatre was the nationwide crackdown on drinking and driving. As I also was in the night-club business, I saw the decline simultaneously effect both businesses. Crime also was a factor in Sacramento where many Theatres were not in the best of areas. If a producer can address these areas by partnering with a well know hotel operation with room packages, security, great food etc…Dinner Theatre is still viable. I was told in 1976 …I could not make it successful then. Using this formula, I am doing it again in 2014. Not only because there is now a huge vacuum left, but because when Dinner Theatre sticks to Musicals (The right ones at that) with a great cast that can invoke standing ovations, the battle can be easily won.

  • I find these posts so fascinating to read. We are in our 4th Season as a Dinner Theater Co. in a small town (Enterprise, AL) and have done extremely well. I am a co-owner and I cherish the amazing talent that has graced our stage. I do agree that dinner theater has sort of gotten a bad name due to the cheesy productions and mediocre food that has been dished up in tourist trap type settings. We try diligently to offer quality productions with fine cuisine (no buffet for us!) that matches the theme of each show (and is a stand-out on its own). We are shooting for “class” and not crass – a resurrection of the bygone era of dinner clubs that exuded style and elegance. We are lucky that there seems to be a market for it in our area. We do not have trouble selling out.

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  • I got my first professional acting job at age 16 at a Dinner Theater and my first professional choreography job in the Dinner Theater circuit! I thought it was so cool how the Barn Dinner Theater circuit/chain would send casts of shows around – and you would play one theatre for a month then move on to the next Barn Dinner theatre – 3 states away! It was fun!

  • Doug Cackett says:

    Do you know how or if I can get my money back on a gift certificate for the Mesa Palms dinner theatre any help would be appreciated

  • Pamela Docken says:

    I had a wonderful little dinner theatre called Oops Dinner Theatre, from 1999 to 2007 that accomadated up to 100 patrons per performance. This little theatre made millions, had guests from all 50 states and 15 countries. Within five years we went from nothing to being voted the best theatre in the twin cities, beating out all of the prestigious theatres that Minnesota is known for. We didn’t receive state or federal funding. We survived through ticket sales. And we did well. But in 2006 we lost our home (the building was torn down and is now an empty lot) and our growing, much loved dinner theatre died a tragic death for lack of finding a new home. We had magic in everything we did. It was a shame it was taken away from not only the owners, but also the thousands of patrons who put their butts in our seats to have a four hour experience of great food, unbeatable service and fun, fun, fun. If I could I would do it all again – in a heartbeat!

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