I don’t know that I ever wanted to eat dinner while a nearly naked woman dangled from a wire 30 feet overhead, writhing as she hovered—much less a dinner of shrimp and grits—but it’s nice to know that it’s possible, I suppose. I will say that I gave the tomato conserva an extra stir just to make sure a stray tassel hadn’t made its way onto my plate, but I needn’t have bothered, as downtown’s new Prohibition Supperclub & Bar is nothing if not an efficiently run operation.
Once on Friday evenings and twice on Saturdays, a clutch of a hundred or so intrepid diners is briskly ushered to 27 tables on two floors inside what remains of Houston’s first movie theater (the Isis, which opened ca. 1912, when the movies were silent). The house lights dim at the top of the hour, exactly when they’re supposed to, and a parade of women—a few quite talented, most wearing black flapper wigs, and all with nary a pasty off-center—mounts the stage. This is the waiters’ cue to serve the salad, the first course of a tripartite $65 prix fixe dinner (burlesque included) that goes on to offer a choice of two entrées to the accompaniment of a performer clad in nothing but rope, and hazelnut crème brûlée even as a woman dances frantically nearby, frantic because she is topless save for two tassels, both of which have been set ablaze (and no, this is not how the crème brûlée is made).
Whether or not Prohibition is indeed “Texas’s only supper club where you can enjoy a true dinner and show experience,” as the website recently claimed, there’s no arguing that the once-thriving art form is in serious decline. Still, how great a loss this is to our cultural heritage is debatable. Now that we’ve no Windmill Dinner Theater to produce Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? starring Mamie Van Doren, are our lives unavoidably diminished in some way? Did we need to see A Shot in the Dark in the Balinese Room? Was there something revelatory about the Dunfey’s Dinner Theater staging of The Music Man at the Royal Coach Motor Hotel?
I’m skeptical, and so were the Prohibition folks, apparently. Loving the genre but uncertain as to how much pent-up demand there was, they jettisoned dinner theater in favor of “nostalgic decadence,” as the website puts it, which is presumably more of a sure thing. After all, men still stand in line for steak, shrimp, and lap dances at The Ritz, which is to say there is clear precedent. But Prohibition is aiming for broader appeal (e.g., bachelorette parties, couples on second eHarmony dates, edgy seniors, etc.) with plush banquettes, throwback chandeliers, and racy yet tasteful performers—The Moonlight Dolls—whose specialty is something called “exacerbated femininity,” according to the Dolls website.
For some reason, the experience began to list toward the cruise ship–esque as the evening went on. Maybe it was all the audience participation, or the emcee’s habit of meeting our applause with I-CAN’T-HEAR-YOU!, or the “You want the shrimp-and-grits or the steak-and-potatoes?” prattle of the waiters. In any case, both entrées were good enough to convince me to pay another visit at lunchtime.
As you can imagine, the harsh light of day brings a different Prohibition, one devoid of fishnets and pheasant feathers, and attention turns from the theater to the adjacent dining room and bar area, a cozy and attractive mélange of café tables, chessboard floors, and French canopy chairs. Given the slenderness of its supper club offerings, you might expect Prohibition’s lunch and dinner menus to be similarly skimpy. Not so. The dishes are many—chef Ben McPherson seems to have drawn inspiration from every continent and period—and they’re all exquisite, or at least all the ones we tried at a recent lunch. Everything from the banh mi panzanella—a sort of bread salad version of the popular Vietnamese sandwich—to the smoked fried chicken, to the grilled pimento-and-cheese sandwich, was excellently cooked and perfectly seasoned, although I’ve a special place in my heart for the chicken-fried oysters. Delicately fried and secured to tiny johnny cakes with Kewpie mayonnaise, each little mollusk in this inspired appetizer had—hmm, how to put this—an exacerbated deliciousness, to coin a phrase.