Restaurant Review - That's eater-tainment

At some Atlanta restaurants, it's not just the food that makes the meal

The already dim lights lower and the table of sushi all but disappears. A man with a flashlight shines his beam toward the curtained entrance to the kitchen. The B-52's Planet Claire begins low and then swells louder. The curtain moves and is parted by a glittering arm.

A nearly 7-foot-tall she-man emerges in heels, a miniature disco ball strapped to her left eye. Glowing in the light cast by the flashlight and lumbering in a simulated robot-style gait to Fred Schneider's voice, she makes her way up and down the aisles, between young diners dancing in their seats. She leans over and beckons those brave enough to enter her spotlight and hand her dollar bills.

She is Miss EJ, one of the female impersonators at Nickiemoto's show, Dragamaki. Her act is followed by Martina Diamante and Chili Pepper, who shimmy and shake their asses to Britney and Whitney, elbowing their way through tipsy patrons and servers toting trays of lipstick-rimmed glasses.

The posh Midtown Japanese fusion eatery is standing-room-only, and people are waiting 45 minutes for a table for two. A large table of young women is celebrating a birthday, and between sipping wine and munching California rolls, they fork over dollar bills to the men dressed like women.

According to Daniel Frye, manager at the restaurant and the producer of Dragamaki, Monday nights often trump Fridays and Saturdays for total sales.

"The owners were careful in that they didn't want [the restaurant] to turn into a drag bar," says Frye. "But when they saw that Mondays, which were the slowest nights, can now attract this type of crowd, then they couldn't say no."

Enjoying entertainment along with your entree is not an unfamiliar concept to Atlanta diners. Sopping up smooth jazz tunes along with your surf 'n' turf is an option in many restaurants. But, now, instead of providing ambient noise, entertainment catering to today's short attention spans gets in your face (or on your table), so that you have no choice but to put down your utensils and get involved in the show.

In fact, some restaurants are banking on just that. There are, after all, restaurants with entertainment, and then there are performances that include food. Which came first — the food or the entertainment — is usually easy to decipher from first bite. Restaurants like Nickiemoto's became well-known slinging sushi before serving up slinky numbers to boost their bottom lines. A restaurant like Agatha's, on the other hand, had an entertainment package from the start, with food and drink included as part of the deal. Judging from the turnout at these locales, both concepts work, drawing crowds in search of fun, not just fuel.

Latin lovers

On a Wednesday night, Andaluz, the Spanish tapas restaurant on Peachtree, comes alive with music and dance from across the Atlantic. The food sets the stage with authentic dishes like rape con aguacate (grilled monkfish and marinated avocado on skewers) and pan tomate (fresh tomato and olive oil on crusty bread). Peachtree Street fades and diners are transported across the Atlantic to Spain, at least for a few hours.

The tables and bar are filled to capacity with regulars there to see the costumes and footwork of Atlanta's Pasion Flamenca, who don their flouncy dresses and dancing shoes for a performance of the classic Spanish-style dancing that has been around for hundreds of years.

Swedish-born Ulrika Frank, who has been teaching and performing flamenco since arriving in Atlanta in 1999, joins guest dancer Marta Sid Ahmed in a stomping frenzy. Their rhythmic claps echo throughout the tight corners of the tiny eatery and spark an already smoldering fire within the crowd.

"This is the closest to the real thing that you'll get in Atlanta. They're great!" one patron booms to his friend at the bar, reputedly the best seat in the house.

The red wall lights emit a soft glow above the heads of Polish guitarist Witold Tulodziecki and bass player Mike Cady. Ahmed takes the stage first, whirling her skirt and whipping her hands about to the beat. The tables are only inches from the performers, so onlookers feel the breeze of whizzing skirts. The stomping and clicking of Ahmed's shoes on the small plywood stage hypnotizes the crowd. Later Frank and Ahmed dance together and joust about on the stage like a bull and toreador.

In between dances, the music continues and spontaneous eruptions of whooping and dancing erupt within the crowd. Some are students of Frank's eager to show off what they've learned, and others are attempting the dance for the first time, doing their best to kick up their clunky heels to the rhythm. Flamenco is contagious, and they've all been infected.

Dinner roles

"Hi, I'm Angina, the daughter of Caesar, you'll be Jerk this evening," greets the actress/hostess as you enter Agatha's A Taste of Mystery. Angina's costume is a flowing assortment of robes fashioned into a toga. The show, Blood, Sweat and Togas, has begun. Guests are instructed to find their table, take note of the place card bearing their character's name and begin grazing.

Diners at Agatha's are more than an audience, they are actors. With a five-course meal served intermittently between acts, there's no room for a nervous stomach. When given their cue, diners must stand behind their chair and sing, chant or speak their part.

Like many of the visitors who are here for a special occasion, Collette Tomberlin is celebrating her birthday. "I've always wanted to come," she says. "I love mysteries. I'm always reading them and I thought this would be perfect." Tomberlin and her husband have made the trek from Hiram. She's Chinette for the evening and couldn't be happier.

Designed to keep your attention, the show is briskly paced and simply written. The anachronistic Roman parody is led by two actors, Emilio Perey and Nevanne Williams, playing the duo Angina and Ceasar who are charged with rethinking the carnage of the arena and decide to use wrestling instead of slaughter for the Romans' entertainment. The actors play out their scenes in the middle of the room, surrounded by long tables of patrons

eagerly awaiting their cue to speak.

When it's Chinette's turn to speak, she bravely stands and challenges Ceasar's son, Commodius, to fight one of the Raging Amazonian Women in a wrestling match. "She'll kick your butt," she exclaims

proudly, getting into her role.

Full of puns and the Latinizing of metro locales (Dawsonvilia, for example), the low-brow script gets an added pick-me-up when the wine starts flowing freely after the soup is served. Fully lubricated from red, white and "blush" wine, nearly 30 audience members stand and begin singing their ode to wrestling set to the tune of "America the Beautiful." Since everyone is required to participate, group parts get even the wallflowers involved in the show.

This dinner theater clearly puts more emphasis on theater than dinner. Appetizers are party food hors d'oeuvres, and the five entree selections are cooked quickly for the 150 waiting "actors." Servers rapidly deliver salad, soup and your choice of chicken, beef, salmon or tuna dishes to the table, while surreptitiously filling wine glasses to the brim. The strawberry shortcake dessert is the biggest hit, but it's the bellylaughs not bellyfuls that this crowd is after.

Country crooners

Tucked in a quiet Roswell neighborhood, the Swallow at the Hollow restaurant is small and unassuming. The thick, wood tables are packed on a rainy Saturday night, all for the Songwriters from Nashville's Bluebird Cafe. Well, that and the barbecue. A half-rack of ribs is served up with generous sides like slaw and fries as well as a trinity of sauces — mustard, Carolina vinegar-based and tomato-based — on every table.

The food here draws patrons every night of the week, but the hustle and bustle of the Saturday diners is immediately silenced when the three performers take the makeshift stage. This isn't like a typical concert where you strain to hear over cell phone babble, idle chatter and the token screaming baby. This is a serious music crowd.

Having traveled down from Nashville Friday afternoon, the performers at the weekend shows feature a rotating roster of guests. On this night, it's Kevin Welch, Kieran Kane and newcomer Claudia Scott. With servers like Betty Ann, a struggling singer in her own right, calling everyone "honey" in her raspy, country twang, and the strum of acoustic guitars, the place really does start to feel a lot like Nashville.

All songs are written and performed by the songwriters. You may have heard them sung by someone else — like Kane's "I'll Go On Loving You," popularized by Alan Jackson — but this is the man who wrote it, singing it the way he intended. This is a fan's chance to see the fount of creativity at its source.

"Don't tell anyone about this place," Swallow regular Mike Orlin urges. "It's too good to get popular."

Orlin is worried that the great food, attentive crowd and quality entertainment will be lost if too many people discover the Hollow. Popularity does have its price.

Those seeking a little culture with their cuisine must be willing to pay. Most restaurants charge a cover, anywhere from $10-$40, and some require reservations. But if crowds are any indication, the chance to transcend the typical ho-hum dining experience is worth the cost. Luckily, with the variety of entertainment available, there's room for everyone at the table to get a piece of the pie.??