Photo by Tenaya HillsWere it not for the sweet, spiced aromas seeping from the doorway of Bayou St. John, beckoning every passing stomach like fiendish, culinary Sirens, it's possible the quaint Cajun-style restaurant would remain entirely forgotten, lost amidst the bikini stores and nail parlors on Seal Beach's Main Street. But even the most steadfast dieter and clueless tourist can't resist the smell of the restaurant's gumbo and seafood dishes—not to mention some Bard to go along with that bouillabaisse.
The first time I walked past Bayou St. John, I was en route to a Sunday-night flick at the Bay Theatre a few doors away. Already running late, I didn't have much time to breathe in St. John's odiferous bouquet of butter-laden bliss. I did notice, however, a flier posted outside next to the menu promoting the restaurant's monthly dinner theater, Amuse Pictures' "Shakespeare à la Carte."
Holdonnaminute. Cajun food? With a little Shakespeare on the side? Why, gee, now that you mention it, yes, I'd just love some pentameter with my alligator tail!
A few weeks later, after arriving for our recommended 7:30 p.m. dinner reservation—the shows start at 8 p.m.—my friends and I were greeted by Amuse Pictures founder Terra Taylor, who handed us menus and programs for the evening's performance of To Be or Not. From what I gathered in the program's notes, it was the fourth and final installment of a Shakespeare soap opera of sorts, a yarn centered on a dinner party for a controversial wedding engagement with dialogue culled from such works as As You Like It, Henry VIII, Taming of the Shrew and Hamlet.
Patrons packed the restaurant, but I soon found that a number of the people I figured for fellow diners were in fact members of the production. Just as we delved into our stuffed artichoke appetizer, a tasty cornmeal almost matching the lurid greasiness of hush puppies but lightened by the encapsulating leaves of a boiled artichoke, a man approached our table, video camera in hand. "Are you with the bride or the groom?" he asked, smiling.
Thus, the performance began: no warning, no formal introductions, no explanations. After blankly staring at him for a moment, I answered, "Um . . . the groom?"
"Fantastic!" he exclaimed, pointing the camera in my face. "And would you like to say anything to the happy couple?"
I politely declined. Still, despite being painfully awkward, our forced audience participation served its purpose. As the man thanked us and moved on to the adjacent tables, I began to recognize who the other actors were. It was simple, really: unlike me, they didn't choke on their artichoke leaves when he approached.
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Our main courses proved better than my impromptu Olivier. Bartering with my dish of fantastically spicy Cajun shrimp, I sampled bites from a friend's fried Louisiana catfish (paired with verygarlicky mashed potatoes) and another's spinach-filled chicken Rockefeller roulades; those were drenched in what can only be described as the Best Cheese Sauce Ever. This mass of meals arrived just as the actor playing the head waiter addressed the restaurant, officially concluding the audience participation for the evening.
I tried to follow the program while paying attention to those lip-smacking buttered shrimp. One sonnet from Othello led into the next rhyming couplet from All's Well That Ends Well, and it all tied back to the plot—something to do with a waitress, a lush, a few lawyers and a character simply known as "the lover." I won't lie: I was confused, albeit in the best of ways—which is to say I was intrigued. Whereas normally I find myself yawning through seemingly endless Shakespeare performances, Bayou St. John's entrées provided a convenient respite from the thysand thous and vice versa.
The performance ended just as we polished off our dessert, a serving of magnificently soggy, belt-busting bread pudding. Falstaff we were afterward. Exiting onto Main Street, we still hadn't a clue what To Be or Not had really been about. But as we passed a couple who had stopped in front of the restaurant, marveling at what they sniffed wafting from its doors, I realized it didn't matter. After all, when someone else does all the talking, it means you have more time to eat. And at Bayou St. John, that is as we like it.
Bayou St. John, 320 Main St., Seal Beach, (310) 431-2298. Open 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Beer and wine. Dinner for two, $40-$80, food only. All major credit cards accepted; The entire "Shakespeare À La Carte" saga starts up again this month with the first installment Loves Me, Loves Me Not this Wednesday. Call Amuse Pictures at (562) 493-3604 for reservations.