The Reservation Gal at the Pleasanton Hotel had one of those outer East Bay drawls that suggested a life filled with rural activities such as attending rodeos, eating breakfast at Denny’s, and turning a perpetual blind eye to the more citified parts of the region.
“The Mystery Dinner Theater is $54, and you have a choice of four entrées,” she said. “There’s the chicken Dijon, the pork tenderloin, the grilled salmon, or the vegetable risotto. And did I mention that the theme of this mystery dinner is the Wild, Wild West?”
Actually, no, she hadn’t.
“We strongly suggest that people wear costumes to get in the spirit of things,” she added, perkily.
This Mystery Dinner thing was shaping up to be kinda fun. Imagine: women in frisky dancehall clothes like the type seen at Western amusement parks, where you can get your photo taken wearing “actual frontier gear.” Meanwhile, the men would be wearing Stetsons, chaps — either regular or assless, Folsom-Street-Fair-style leggings — and colorful bandannas that announced their sexual preference.
Then again, maybe Food Fetish had just been living in the more citified portion of the East Bay for too long. In any case, yes, Reservation Gal, that’ll be two reservations. The chicken Dijon and pork tenderloin sound fabulous.
The lovely Pleasanton Hotel, located in charming downtown Pleasanton, is an elderly and stately building, but the name itself is a misnomer, since it doesn’t actually provide lodging. Actually, the hotel is a popular place for weddings and Sunday brunch buffet. Meanwhile, Mystery Dinners, for which reservations must be made a week in advance, happen on Fridays. Besides the Wild-West-themed dinner, other motifs are “Murder Among the Stars” and “Murder on the High Seas.” Fliers in the lobby announced that Frank Sinatra, or perhaps his impersonator, would also be performing sometime this month.
Reservation Gal had told everyone to arrive at 6:00 p.m. sharp, and by God, they did. A large crowd congregated in the ever-so-quaint lobby. A frazzled-looking older man at the entrance was taking names and instructing dinner guests to go sit in the bar until curtain time. Almost everyone assembled appeared to be grandparents. The bar area was packed with people ordering sherry and Harvey Wallbangers, or whatever it is that today’s grandparents drink. Only a few daring folks had taken up the command to don Western wear, and the results were somewhat disappointing. There were a smattering of Stetsons and maybe some Wranglers here and there, but that was it.
Soon we were all herded into a large banquet room. There were about twenty large, round tables, each of which seated ten. A waiter consulted a seating chart and ushered diners to their assigned tables. A passel of rowdy women who looked to be in their fifties were already creating quite a spectacle. “I hope we get assigned to their table,” said Katy, our dining companion.
No such luck. But the other guests at our table quickly introduced themselves. Some were veterans of mystery-themed dinners and knew what to expect. “Oh, they’re just great fun!” one confided. Others were virgins to the whole scene and had smiles of nervous anticipation. One confused diner apparently thought this was a Jimmy Buffett Mystery Dinner and was wearing a very loud Hawaiian shirt in commemoration.
The tables were set with china and wineglasses. Waiters came by and took drink orders. There was a narrow strip of paper on the table — apparently a fake newspaper clipping that provided some backstory to what we were about to witness. According to this obituary from the Dodge City Herald, local rancher and eccentric inventor Adam Zapple had died under suspect circumstances. “Some of the characters in this play are named Maude Linn, Doc Torate, and Deet Taille,” gasped Katy, reading from the fake obituary. “Oh, God.” Who knew there would be so much corn on the menu?
At 7:00 p.m., a commotion indicated that the play was about ready to begin. A matronly woman, obviously in character because she was wearing an old-timey bonnet and talking in an accent that sounded like a cross between Minnie Pearl and Yosemite Sam, emerged from backstage with a basket of buns and went from table to table distributing them. She introduced herself as “Miss Wont.” The fourth wall was being broken down.
Then a tall mustachioed man strolled into the dining room. He was dressed in tight black jeans and a black cowboy hat, and was wearing a bandanna around his neck. The rowdy women at the next table swooned at this dreamboat, who introduced himself as “Marshall Dillon.” The lawman announced the sad demise of Adam Zapple. Then a woman dressed up as a dancehall girl, Miss Kitten, came out and said a bunch of stuff very dramatically. Other characters appeared and said their lines in a Western twang. This went on for a while and then act one was over.
A team of bustling waiters soon rushed out with the first course, a winter salad consisting of spinach, walnuts, and a very mild feta cheese. A gravy boat on the table contained a Dijon vinaigrette. Since half of us had ordered the chicken Dijon, other dressing choices would have been nice. The waiters came by and quickly cleared the salad plates. A woman at a neighboring table implored her waitress for more rolls, but was told that extra bread was against the rules. For $54, a second serving of rolls didn’t seem like a lot to ask.
The second act of the play went on for purt’ near forever. Miss Kitten, Miss Wont, Marshall Dillon, Maude Linn, Doc Torate, and Curt Taille and Dee Taille (both nephews of the murdered Adam Zapple) walked around the room emoting or yelling but still, because the room was so large, it was dern impossible to hear everything being said.
It was also increasingly difficult to pay attention to the convoluted story line because we were all so hungry. Who the hell cared if Miss Wont hated Miss Kitten when we were too hungry to focus on the melodramatic intricacies of the plot. After some lowdown varmint stabbed Miss Kitten, who staggered from the kitchen with a knife affixed to her back and walked around moaning a great deal before she finally bit the dust, act two ended and we all got to eat. Good riddance, I thought.
Happily, the portions were generous. The chicken breast was baked in a panko crust and slathered with a Dijon cream sauce. All the dishes came with a large mound of thick mashed potatoes, which contained flecks of parsley and had a strong flavor of garlic. Katy said her pork tenderloin was good, though it looked dried out. But no one complained about the food; people were just happy to be fed.
After dinner was served, Marshall Dillon told our table that we should pick out a name for our “team.” Our captain, who was randomly picked before the dinner, was supposed to survey everyone at the table about which scoundrel killed Adam Zapple and Miss Kitten (the answer to which I am about to heartlessly spoil, for any of you who may wish to stop here and preserve the drama). Our team captain, who happened to be an off-duty bartender from the Pleasanton Hotel, had disappeared with her boyfriend, commenting, “I’m heading off to the bar.” In her absence, Jimmy Buffett decided that we should be the Parrotheads. No one cared enough to dissent. Someone half-heartedly suggested that Miss Wont was the culprit, and so it was written on the team scorecard. Plates of New York cheesecake with raspberry sauce were brought out and a pot of coffee was placed on the table.
After the dessert plates had been cleared, there was a long, drawn-out finale. The cold-hearted murderer turned out to be … Food Fetish — except that I would have murdered everybody present. The lucky person who guessed the real culprit won a gift certificate to come back to the hotel for more. And was permitted to leave early.