GibsonHouse Review

Murder on the sea of love: Leaves you feeling full, not seasick

Mystery dinner theater uncovered!
Friday, January 7, 2005
last updated January 7, 2005 12:32 AM

If you have ever thought of taking your date to dinner and then the theatre(for those are you who are ultra-classy), rest assured that there is now an even more chic option that combines both: Mystery dining that involves a murder.

As I was ushered into a room at the Benjamin Franklin Hotel in San Mateo, I knew at once that this would not be a typical dinner. Instead of the soft candlelight and large black stage I was expecting, there were several large round tables stationed themselves throughout the brightly lit room. I found myself seated at a circular table with seven women, all old enough to be my mom, and one misplaced youngster whose boyish looks made him look five instead of 13. Immediately, a man with a tall chef’s hat and white apron came cheerfully bounding up to the table and introduced himself as “Chef Fredo.” He would be taking care of the food during our last night aboard our fictitious cruise ship, the S.S. Amore. I eyed him suspiciously. Was he the real chef? Was he going to bring our food? Could I ask him if the salad to be served contained nuts? For a moment, reality and fantasy confounded themselves within my reason and I was quite sure I was a passenger having dinner on a cruise.

The performance began as the seven-person cast began to boom out scripted lines. Throughout the night, the actors encouraged the diners to tell a joke, sing or, as the boy from our table did, disjoin his elbow, winning an award I might add. Between audience members’ raunchy jokes and song performances, drama unfolded and entrees were served.

The three-course meal from Mediterranean Astaria Restaurant in downtown San Mateo began with a leafy salad, sparse in ingredients, dressed in tangy citrus vinaigrette and crumbled Gorgonzola. Waiters in black drifted seamlessly in and out of the room replenishing water and bread. It was followed by a deliciously tender and juicy braised chicken cacciatore bathed in tomato and white wine sauce. With a mere touch of the fork, the chicken meat fell off the bone. While the mystery came to a climax as one of the cruise ship members was found dead, the food ended on a low note as the dessert was served. The tiramisu lacked moisture and seemed to me like a cover-up to serve cake.

At the end of the night, each table of eight received a sheet of clues and questions to be turned in for a possible prize at the end. I had brought paper and pen intending to jot down notes for the article, but ended up using them doing detective work a la Sherlock Holmes with many others. The night ended perfectly as our table won the coveted prize — brunches at restaurant Astoria in downtown San Mateo.

Despite its superiority over the delicacies offered by Stanford dining, I would rate the food second to the interactive performance, which kept my attention and provided many laughs throughout the night. The founder of Gibson House Mystery Performers is John Gibson, who began the troupe seven years ago. He is a talented actor himself and assures me that interactive theater is “a whole lot harder” than stage acting — “Here, we must hold our talent and be able to remove the fourth wall that stage actors build.” Under his direction, his mystery dinners have grown in popularity the Bay Area, taking over four different locations.

Mystery dinner theater patrons consist of mostly middle-aged and elderly couples. At other locations, table size range from two to eight persons per table. For the $65 surcharge that includes food, performance, tip and tax, John Gibson’s mystery performance dinners are well worth a visit.

One warning, though — if you are truly considering trying out a mystery dinner to impress your date by taking her / him to one of these, you should think twice. Much time is spent interacting with the actors, and he / she might just go home with one of them, not you. Also, the whole dinner lasts for about three hours, with the dessert being served at 9:30 p.m., which apparently tired out my neighbor as she snored through the actor introductions and award ceremony. I was just happy that our table won the grand prize.

If you really, really liked playing Clue as a kid and want to relive it through mystery dinner theater, you’ll want to check out the Gibson House Mystery Performers site at