The lights dim and an electric thrill runs through the crowd. From the moment the curtains open, the excitement of live theater is palpable.
Combining the spectacle of live theater with a delicious meal creates an evening of pure entertainment. Dinner theaters across the country make this equation of fun work with music, dancing, storytelling and cuisine.
Although they all offer a meal and a show, dinner theaters vary in style. A rollicking good time at the Western-themed Jackson Hole Playhouse will leave a different impression than the elegant and upscale productions of the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater.
No matter what dinner theater you choose, these sites all know how to throw an unforgettable party.
Barn Dinner Theatre
Greensboro, North Carolina
Known For: Historic Legacy
Howard Douglass Wolfe was convinced he had a golden idea. Known as the father of dinner theaters, Wolfe built the Barn Dinner Theatre in central North Carolina as part of a chain of 27 similar theaters stretching across the eastern United States.
Since 1964, the theater has produced Broadway-style shows, concerts and other performances. Now known as America’s longest-running dinner theater, it serves more than 50,000 patrons annually.
The theater appears much as it did when it opened in a converted barn with a theater-in-the-round stage. The 360-degree sight seating ensures that guests never sit more than 35 feet from the stage. The sets never use obstructive scenery, so all 250 audience members can always see the actors.
Over the years, the dinner theater has nurtured many talented actors, including Robert De Niro and Mickey Rooney. Groups can learn about the theater’s storied past — it once housed actors in living quarters above the performance space.
Southern classics fill the theater’s buffet, with dishes such as fried okra, banana pudding, Angus roast beef and honey-glazed ham. The buffet is set in the middle of the room. Once everyone is served, the buffet is moved, and the stage is lowered from the ceiling into its place.
Shows vary at the Barn Dinner Theatre, with recent musicals like “The Addams Family” as well as tribute concerts such as “The Gospel Side of Elvis.”
Fireside Dinner Theatre
Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin
Known For: Shopping
When groups show up at the Fireside Dinner Theatre in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, the visit extends beyond a quick evening dinner and show. The historic dinner theater is one of Wisconsin’s leading group travel attractions because of its high-quality food, professional performances and shopping experience.
The site features three permanent gift shops and one seasonal shop. While guests browse the memorabilia, the home decor, the garden accessories and the boutique handbags, they can sample cookies, cakes and other goodies at the on-site bakery.
What began as a dream for a standout restaurant in the small Wisconsin town opened as a 60- by-60-foot pyramid-shaped building in the middle of a cornfield. Dick Klopcic’s vision seemed foolhardy to many, but over time, the restaurant’s consistently well-reviewed menu attracted visitors from near and far. Since it opened in 1964, the company has expanded four times.
Because the dinner theater started as a restaurant, the site prioritizes the dining experience. Meals take place away from the stage with story-themed menus; for example, a Hawaiian rib-eye steak might be served for a performance of “South Pacific.” Buffets are also available for two of the theater’s seven annual productions.
The Fireside Dinner Theatre’s in-the-round stage sits patrons close to the stage, which is only three feet from the first rows. The theater produces Broadway musicals and musical revues with its in-house band. Some recent productions include “Menopause the Musical,” “Annie” and “A Christmas Story.”
Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater
Known For: Broadway Productions
The Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater has one clear advantage: its location. The dinner theater in Claremont, California, lies in a suburb of Los Angeles, a city filled with high-caliber actors. With excellent actors to choose from, the dinner theater has crafted its reputation around quality Broadway productions.
When visitors enter the dinner theater, they immediately remark on the grandeur of the venue. The elegant interior is matched by the fine dining experience. The theater’s gourmet chef, full waiter service, wide selection of wines and homemade desserts dazzle guests before the show begins.
The Candlelight Pavilion produces an average of nine musicals per year, each running approximately seven weeks. The owners select Tony Award-winning musicals for every demographic each season, from edgy selections to classic musicals to family-friendly favorites. Upcoming and recent productions include “Bright Star,” “Peter Pan” and “The Bodyguard.”
Since its opening in 1985, the dinner theater’s company has written and produced a Christmas play each year. This December, the tradition continues with the all-new “The Bells of Christmas.”
Though the venue specializes in Broadway musicals, it also offers a summer concert series and a series of dramatic plays.
The operation started when a husband and wife wrote their plans for a dinner theater on a napkin. The Candlelight Pavilion is now co-owned by the couple’s two children, who still make a curtain speech each night to welcome the patrons as family.
Dutch Valley and Ohio Star Theater
Known For: Amish Cuisine
When Amish families gather around the table for a meal, family members pass around the old-fashioned, homemade dishes as needed. Groups members can ask one another to pass the potatoes and other dishes at Dutch Valley.
Dutch Valley in Amish country, Ohio, goes beyond a typical dinner theater with not only an on-site theater and restaurant but also a bakery, shops and an inn, so guests can settle in and enjoy. The Dutch Valley Restaurant follows Amish recipes with an all-you-can-eat salad bar, roasted meats, sandwiches and other homestyle dishes.
The restaurant sits less than 100 yards from the Ohio Star Theater, so guests can easily combine a family-style meal or buffet with a show. Productions first took place in the site’s conference center. Demand outgrew the space, and the site opened the 500-seat theater in 2017.
The theater produces an average of 15 concerts and four musicals a year. Many of the musicals have Amish themes, such as the upcoming “Stolen, the Musical” and “A Simple Sanctuary.”
Groups can search for home decor, boutique clothing items and Amish-made goodies at Dutch Valley Gifts and the Dutch Valley Market. A playground and carriage rides also add to the experience.
Dutch Valley rises above mist-covered Amish farmland filled with crops and Jersey cows. At Carlisle Inn, sugar-sweet cinnamon rolls, handcrafted beds and fireplace nooks make a stay at Dutch Valley an Amish experience filled with all the traditions plus modern conveniences.
Jackson Hole Playhouse
Known For: Western-Themed Shows
Six nights a week, the “Shootout Gang” takes over Town Square of Jackson for the famous Jackson Hole Shootout, although this shootout adds a whimsy to the classic Western scene with singing, dancing and laughs.
When visitors attend a meal and a show at the Jackson Hole Playhouse, they may notice the servers look familiar. The actors in the shootout double as servers and performers on the stage at the dinner theater.
The Saddle Rock Saloon keeps up the Western theme of the experience with decor outfitted to match saloons in old Western movies. Meals feature salads, bread and a main entree with sides.
The actors sing cowboy and country songs throughout dinner before moving on to the main event, which usually features a show with a Western theme such as “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”
The Jackson Hole Playhouse’s building opened in 1915 as a livery stable. The building is one of the city’s oldest buildings. Over the years, it served as the town’s Model T Ford dealership, a bowling alley and a theater named Diamond Lil before opening as a dinner theater in 1984.
Wyoming’s longest-running professional dinner theater, the Jackson Hole Playhouse received a Top Jackson Hole Attraction rating from TripAdvisor for 2015 and 2016.
Toby’s Dinner Theatre
Known For: Intimate Theater Experiences
After chatting with servers during the meal, groups can watch the wait staff transform into colorful characters for an immersive theater experience at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia, Maryland. The performance continues to feel personable, as the theater-in-the-round stage allows for viewers to sit no more than 30 feet from the stage.
Its proximity to the District of Columbia allows groups to easily incorporate the production and the meal into an itinerary. Toby’s Dinner Theatre features five or six Broadway musicals a year with a live orchestra. The professional productions vary, with upcoming productions that include “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Mama Mia” and “Kinky Boots.”
Since its 1979 opening, the theater has received over 100 Helen Hayes Award nominations. Its 300-seat theater attracts more than 80,000 patrons a year.
Diners can feast on a salad bar, a sundae bar and a seven-entree buffet that changes to fit each production. For example, meal options for “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” feature carrots Parisienne, ratatouille and Frollo’s potatoes.
Toby Orenstein opened the theater using all her savings and with little experience. Toby’s Dinner Theatre soon became a smash hit. Orenstein was inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame in 2008.