Many who don’t know about the cabaret scene think for some reason that it’s an inherently risqué form of nightlife. Perhaps that impression comes from the way cabaret has been portrayed in theater and film, whether in the namesake musical following the life of Sally Bowles, or the Moulin Rouge with the character of Satine portrayed by Nicole Kidman. The fact of the matter is, the term “cabaret” encompasses a very wide spectrum of entertainment. By definition, any establishment that combines the dining experience of a restaurant with a showcase live performance can be considered a cabaret.
Cabaret as we know it today was invented in Paris during the Belle Epoch of the late 1800s. This was a time in the world where lots of people had new money from the Industrial Revolution and nobody had television nor radio nor any reason to really stay at home, so the cabaret became a form of entertainment that caught on fairly quickly. Germany, England, other industrialized countries in Europe, and then the United States; in a matter of a few decades, cabaret became an established form of nightlife entertainment throughout the world.
Now different countries have slightly different versions and definitions of what a cabaret is, so for the purposes of this exploration we’re going to look strictly at the American version of it. In case it’s much different even in cities across this country, the perspective of this exploration will focus on the cabaret scene of New York City.
“Cabaret” to me is a term like “theater”, whereas it describes very generally a format that could encompass a hypothetically infinite range of potential content. I consider a venue a cabaret if the offering is equal parts restaurant and show. The lines blur a little bit because many restaurants have live music, and many show venues offer drinks and snacks. To me, neither of these instances qualify as true cabaret experiences. A restaurant where there is live music but where the music is a background and not a main show, is not a true cabaret. On the other hand, a show that offers food and beverage but merely to the extent of snacks and not a meal, is also not a true cabaret. Finally, risqué or not, I consider a quintessential cabaret experience to only be applicable to nightlife, so lunchtime shows do not count.
The New York cabaret scene had its heyday in the 80’s, when it was dominated by 3 competing luxury boutique hotels. There was the Feinstein’s at Loews Regency, The Oak Room at the Algonquin, and the only one still standing today, The Cafe at the Carlyle. There was an entire industry behind this cabaret scene back then, with old timer cabaret celebrities like Andrea Marcovicci and KT Sullivan being regulars at these clubs for decades of their careers. These were more than just gigs, it was a whole scene, like breaking into Broadway or Hollywood, only on a smaller scale in a different medium. These cabaret venues were the favorite hangout spots of an entire generation. People like Tony Bennett, Diane Sawyer, Paul McCartney, Liza Minelli, were all spotted on a regular basis hanging out at these shows.
It is said that the decline of the cabaret is due not only to changing tastes of the new generation, but also due to the fact that the economics of the scene was not great to begin with. The reservations process is a little bit different depending on venue, but for the most part, you reserve tickets to see a cabaret show in the same way you buy a ticket to theater. There is usually a cover charge for seeing the show, and then a food and beverage minimum for once you’re on site. As such, cabaret venues maintain almost the equivalent operational costs of running both restaurant and a theater, while only being able to get a fraction of the costs back for each. Venues like the Carlyle has exorbitant F&B minimums like $75 per person, but there is no cover charge for the show. On the other hand, you have venues like Dizzy’s at Lincoln Center that has a $10 F&B minimum and cover charges of around $30 to $50 per show, but that’s only a fraction of what a ticket price would be if that same band was booked for a concert.
Most importantly, it’s one of the critical elements of a New York cabaret experience that the venue is small. The whole differentiation of this experience from watching a Broadway show or a grand concert is the intimacy of the venue, that everyone at every seat has a great view of the stage, and that the performer can potentially interact with every person in the audience. Most cabaret venues around the city seat around 100 people. As far as I know, even the biggest ones like Joe’s Pub seat no more than about 200. To put that into context, the smallest Broadway theater seats 600 people and most seat over 1,000.
Over my years of living in New York, cabaret has been one of the few forms of nightlife I’ve actually enjoyed. It combines my two favorite things: eating, and not doing anything. You go to a club at the Meatpacking and the next thing you know you’re obligated to dance. You go just to a restaurant and the next thing you know you’re obligated to keep up a conversation. A cabaret is a perfect excuse to relax and have a good time, a perfect combination of great food and great entertainment. Many people say the scene is dead today, but I’m not sure if that’s true or if the scene has just evolved from what it was in the 80’s. The recently opened 54 Below books many Broadway talents on their off days, Dizzy’s at Lincoln Center books the same caliber bands as the Appel Room, Don’t Tell Mama keeps up its performances every single night, and a number of other venues like the Metropolitan and Joe’s and The Cutting Room still offer up great varieties of entertainment. In the same way live theater never got replaced by the motion picture as people feared back in the day, I don’t think the cabaret scene will ever go away. The combination of eating and watching a show is just too brilliant an offering that caters to too biological a need, that I don’t even think it’s a matter of opinion that there will always be people who enjoy it.
See you at the next exploration!