Hampton’s Vaudeville Café
138 Market St.
Chattanooga, Tennessee 37402
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An epic dining experience: world-class service, décor and menu options.
A superior dining experience: high-quality attributes you’ll want to come back for again and again.
A solid dining experience: great characteristics but also some minor issues.
A mediocre dining experience: may have a few good highlights but major flaws.
A terrible dining experience: stay far away unless it’s the only place left to eat to avoid starvation, and even then, question if it’s worth it.
Last Friday night there was some mischief afoot at the Vaudeville Café, and there was food to be had, so I decided to do some investigative reporting. This was the “Mystery of Flight 138” to Chicago, and I booked my “boarding passes” online beforehand, bringing my parents along for the ride. It was a good thing I made reservations-though not in my name, of course-because upon arrival the flight was completely booked up, with the majority of passes sold to a bunch of rowdy high school kids coming in as a large group .
After checking in an hour before the scheduled departure, which is standard at airports and the Vaudeville Café, I went through airport security with a couple of “police officers.”
“What is your reason for flying to Chicago, business or pleasure?” one of them asked sternly.
“Um, both?” my mother nervously replied.
“Are you sober, ma’am?” After further japes questioning my mom’s sobriety and calling my dad “Kenny Rogers” and me “Mr. Goatee,” we were then posed for a touristy picture and taken to our seats. The inside of this airplane was designed for each table to have a good view of a stage, which is uncommon on airplanes, so I suspected something was up.
I would like to issue a warm welcome to our main server, or “flight attendant,” I mean, who, on her first night, was unknowingly popped with a reviewer right off the bat. She did a great job with our table and was friendly and attentive. The staff dutifully helped each other out, as there was a constant rotation of “stewards and stewardesses” going around checking on tables, apart from the main one for each section. It was a good system, and everyone seemed to be on top of keeping all tables in order.
Now, I wasn’t expecting gourmet food from a buffet going in, especially on an “airplane,” but come on, guys. Really? I’ve had better airplane food. With my “early boarding,” I expected the food to at least be warm, but everything was lukewarm at best, and I even tried going back later after they had replaced some of the dishes with fresher ones, and it wasn’t much better.
The buffet included salad with either ranch or Italian dressing. The salad was fresh with grated cheese, and the dressings were average, store-bought grade. The canned mini potatoes, corn and green beans were bland. The white mac and cheese dish was way overcooked, almost to the point of a mush. The broccoli, rice and cheese casserole was also mushy, but it had a decent flavor. The roasted chicken was extremely dry and chewy.
The best dish was the penne pasta with tomato sauce and meatballs, which was probably the most-eaten, so the quicker rotation seemed to keep it the warmest of everything on the buffet line, but it still wasn’t very warm. The meatballs had more flavor than anything else, the sauce was OK but not particularly inspired, and the pasta still had some firmness to it-the aforementioned mac and cheese would have been better had the bowtie macaroni been cooked to a similar firmness as the penne pasta to keep it from becoming as mushy. The dinner rolls were soft and weren’t half-bad, either.
A soft cheesecake dessert drizzled with raspberry sauce was brought around later in the evening. It had a good flavor but was so rich it was hard to finish. And at least this dish was supposed to be cold.
While eating our dinners, the future suspects of the coming shenanigans went around and talked to everyone, even sometimes sitting down at our tables to chat with us. The key was to pay attention to what everyone was saying for clues to figure out the later perpetrator to the murder, with a brief list of the culprits on a card we would later turn in with our guesses.
Sheer terror spread across my dad’s face when he saw that the audience-I mean “passengers”-would be “part of the show” on the card. I failed to mention that to him beforehand because he is an extremely reserved guy (a trait which I received from him), and he might not have come otherwise-oops! My bad. I explained to him that he wouldn’t be forced to do anything he didn’t want to, as it also stated on the card. He double-checked with our flight attendant to make sure, but he definitely looked uneasy before the flight departed.
The pilot, walking around with his “Flying for Dummies” book, wanted to make sure there would be no trouble on this flight, so he was gauging everyone for possible terrorist signs. He went through a hilarious interrogation of our plans in Chicago, and I could tell my dad started to relax some and play along. Other characters included a surly-tempered stewardess, a glamorous single mother with a rambunctious daughter looking for fortune and fame, and a pair of newlyweds already having major marital problems, as the wife flirted with all the guys in attendance.
As our flight departed, the sullen stewardess went through a disgruntled, sarcastic demonstration of our safety apparatuses-which I’m sure every stewardess has wanted to do at some point. All the characters went through some funny banter, and then the plane hit some major turbulence with everyone flailing about wildly. Suddenly, a “director” came running in, yelling, “Cut, cut, cut!”
Apparently, to my surprise, we were never on a plane at all! We were actually on a movie set, filming a movie about a plane, which explained why there was now a huge group of loud teenagers coming in late-if we were actually in mid-air, that would’ve been difficult to do. The actors were put to a major test with this pack of rowdy teens filling up half the theater, but they were able to keep the crowd controlled without breaking character, doing so with humorous ad-libs. I found this to be particularly impressive, and it gave me even more respect for the professionalism of this acting crew.
The show was straight-up, side-splittingly slapstick hilarious, and one thing that was even funnier to me was seeing my typically quiet, timid dad totally cracking up throughout the entire evening-that is truly one of my favorite sights to see. Both my dad and I were asked at different points to participate in the show, but we weren’t forced to do so. There were plenty of volunteers who wanted to go up on stage, and the actors had some good-natured fun with them, with some audience members almost as funny as the actors themselves.
At one point, music started playing, and the movie director made all of us get up and start dancing, with the threat that anyone who didn’t would be called up on stage to dance in front of everyone-with exceptions to the elderly and infirm in the audience, of course. That wasn’t enforced because the whole place erupted in a massive dance party, much like “Soul Train“-or, in this case, “Soul Plane.”
I busted out a few moves: some “white guy” hip shakes, beer-belly bounces and “Night at the Roxbury“-style sideways head nods. I resisted the urge to do “the worm” across the floor and break out some “windmills”-I didn’t want the other patrons to feel intimidated about their inferior dancing skills, of course. The teenagers really got into this, as some of them were even doing some crowd surfing, and the whole place was filled with people jumping and twirling around having fun. What I enjoyed mostly about this was the rare sight of seeing my parents letting loose, dancing with each other like they were as young as most of the audience surrounding them, still as in love as they were when they were younger-not calling them old, of course.
After the murder occurred, the Soddy-Daisy CSI detective stepped in with a redneck swagger, complete with rotting teeth and his belly sticking out the bottom of his shirt, to get to the bottom of this conundrum. Though all the actors were excellent, this guy really stole the show, and he was the same actor who played the pilot. His performance was Will Ferrell-esque, while bringing his own dexterous, improvisational flavor to the table-or, in this case, tables. I didn’t correctly guess the murderer, but I will not reveal who it was. If you’d like to know, you’ll have to find out for yourself.
If this were a typical restaurant review, I really could only give 1 star, simply for the great service despite the bad food. However, I’m springing it up to 3 stars for the sheer talent of the actors, who were seamlessly able to corral a rowdy crowd with some masterful improv comedy. Their command of the show was also able to crack through a tough shell to get down to the nuttiness of one particular writer’s shy, reserved group, who left with smiles on their faces and who have no reservations about booking further reservations in the future.
Roman Flis is a wandering writer, focusing on Chattanooga’s food scene. You can follow him on Twitter or contact him at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.