Electric Playhouse’s Immersive Dining Experience Encourages
Attendees to Explore the Wonder of Regional Foraged Ingredients
By Joanna Manganaro Toto
To spend time in Electric Playhouse, a new all-ages recreation space on Albuquerque’s Westside, is to feel a bit like the Alice character in Lewis Carroll’s celebrated books. Instead of a rabbit hole or a looking glass, guests enter this high-tech wonderland through a neon-lit tunnel and are deposited into a giant-scale board game, in which they have become the game pieces. Projectors shoot colorful graphics across the floors and walls of the cavernous space, and motion-detection devices allow guests to interact with what they see.
The surreal experience continues as guests move through the other rooms. Swirling graphics are manipulated with the contortions of their bodies. In a semi-enclosed space, they lob balls at images that appear via projections on a massive wall. An infinity mirror in a small room borrows from the whimsical installations of artist Yayoi Kusama, with brightly-colored geometric projections that reflect back on themselves, creating the illusion of a much larger space. Even for the selfie-averse, the urge to take a photo is irresistible.
Electric Playhouse may be the only place where this writer has seen people from toddlers to adults genuinely having the same amount of fun. That alone makes one feel as if they’ve stepped through the looking glass.
The venue is the brainchild of CEO and former tech executive John-Mark Collins, who with his four business partners celebrated Electric Playhouse’s grand opening on February 1. However, the company’s origins date back to March 2017, when Collins began planning the first “immersive dining experience” that he would hold at Savoy, the fine-dining restaurant in the Heights where he once worked as general manager. Collins used his expertise in immersive design to create interactive visuals meant to enhance the theme of the meal: new takes on classic dishes. The dining series was a success, inspiring Collins to seek out new venues for his immersive dinners.
After several more dinners with great responses, Collins decided to seek out partners to expand his concept. Instead of focusing solely on the dinners, his partners pushed him to take the idea to the next level. Collins explains, “The dinners were actually the catalyst to build the Playhouse because we wanted to have our own space to do them in. My business partner, Luke Balaoro, who’s our lead software developer, said, ‘Well, why should we stop at the dinners? We should build a bunch of other stuff! We should make it a whole family experience.’ And it just kind of spiraled from there.”
While the bulk of the big-box space that Electric Playhouse occupies is devoted to immersive gaming, Collins and his partners have made an effort to keep the dining aspect of the business prominent. A fast-casual restaurant, which does not require patrons to buy a ticket to the gaming portion, greets guests as they enter. And a block of three rooms to the left of the entrance is designated for digitally-enhanced dining experiences.
On an unseasonably warm February night, twenty-four guests, most strangers to one another, gathered around one long table in one of those three rooms. An amuse-bouche that was a take on the classic Spanish dish, tortilla española, awaited them on plates perfectly illuminated from above. Trippy graphics swayed and swirled across the walls and over the rest of the tabletop. Some observant diners quickly discovered that the graphics could be manipulated by waving a hand or dining utensil just above the surface of the table. Others (this writer included) weren’t delighted by this revelation until halfway through the meal. As each course arrived, a new set of whimsical visuals appeared to accompany it.
Called “Curiosities,” this meal was part of a dining series that was originally slated to run through April 18. Chef Julian Griego, fellow Savoy veteran and former instructor and chef de cuisine of CNM’s Street Food Institute program, has focused on regionally foraged ingredients to create its imaginative menu. Griego notes, “What’s really exciting about this dinner—not only is it super interesting in general—but this is the first time that I’ve worked with the tech team at Electric Playhouse to come up with ideas and take them all the way to fruition.”
The standout dish in Griego’s five-course dinner, which can be purchased with or without wine pairings, is the sous vide smoked trout tamale. The rich flavor of the trout is brightened with herby chimichurri and a hollandaise sauce featuring the chiltepin pepper, the only wild chile native to the United States. In subsequent dishes, Griego features other regional favorites, including bison, sage, and piñon.
Of his intentions for guests at the immersive dinners, Collins says, “We hope that they get the opportunity to try something they wouldn’t normally try or learn something about food that they wouldn’t already know, whether it’s a local ingredient or an interesting backstory. . . . There’s a little education piece that we put out there in all of it.” Griego agrees, adding, “We want to create a community space and get people to interact with each other. And the immersive dinner, being at one table with a group of strangers trying new things—it’s a really cool way to bring people together.”
5201 Ouray Rd NW, Albuquerque, electricplayhouse.com