Beware Table No. 31.
As I sat at the neighboring table with my spine contorted to see Richard Thompson on stage, I couldn’t ignore the peripheral view of the (thankfully) empty Table No. 31 next to us, jammed into a corner with seats so close that the slats in their wooden backs were practically interlocked.
This was my first “acoustic concert” at City Winery, and I was curious as to how a dining experience would co-exist with a quiet musical backdrop amid a full house.
A couple of months ago, I heard Robin Meade and Sixwire perform at the lovingly constructed 350-capacity venue, and while the presence of servers dropping off a carafe or sliding plates to those sharing our table was a mild irritant, their sounds didn’t compete with the guitars and drums onstage.
I’ll leave the food analysis to Ligaya Figueras, my expert dining partner that night, but suffice to say that during an understated performance, the accompanying noise and the presence of food are a distraction.
Thompson is a phenomenal guitarist and a witty personality, but put a skillet of macaroni and cheese in front of me and, well, sorry, attention diverted. And if you aren’t at a seat facing the stage, your choices are to engage in that Cirque du Soleil-like twisting or stare at the person — in this instance, a stranger — across from you while he’s staring at the stage. This is a common setup in Las Vegas showrooms, and it’s no more comfortable or customer-friendly there.
I found myself cautiously holding my fork and eschewing the use of a knife for fear of a utensil slipping out of my hand and clanging against a plate at the most inopportune time. I barely chewed because, even though I’m not generally a noisy eater, what constitutes noise in a setting such as this?
Outfitting a venue with wooden chairs on hardwood floors is a questionable tactic as well. While the scraping and squeaking were more prominent during the set of Thompson’s opening act, it was a nails-on-chalkboard sound I cringed at numerous times throughout the night. But it’s also an inevitable sound because the seating is akin to lemmings in a box.
So consider yourselves warned.
But here are some very cool things about City Winery as a concert venue.
If you’re an adult, you’ll appreciate being surrounded by other adults, and ones who seem invested in the music and are not there merely for social hour (ahem, cough, Chastain). When the announcement was made at the top of the show to refrain from taking photos and video and silence cellphones, I snickered internally.
I’ve attended dozens of shows at other venues where that same request is made and the response is to defiantly ignore it.
But this crowd appeared to — at least from my corner seat facing the wall — comply.
City Winery founder Michael Dorf is a music expert and he specifically outfitted the room with Meyer Sound speakers. During construction, fabric-wrapped panels were built into the walls to assist with sound quality.
Those details are apparent. On both of my visits, the sound was crisp, clean and warm. Likewise, the 20-foot-wide stage — flanked by a pair of video screens that are seemingly only used before the show to advertise upcoming events — is a beauty.
The venue has also amassed an admirable lineup since opening in early summer, and its upcoming selection continues to impress with acts including Cowboy Junkies (Nov. 5-6), Robyn Hitchcock (Nov. 10), Patty Griffin (Nov. 17-18) and Judy Collins (Nov. 29).
Considering that tickets for the VIP section are typically only a few dollars more than the other reserved seats, I’d make a habit of residing in that area. It’s a bit farther from the stage, but the combination of raised platform and copious elbow room more than compensates for being a few extra feet from the performer.
And it will keep you far away from Table No. 31.