Under Teatro ZinZanni's voluminous tent at the northeast corner of the Embarcadero, all she has to do is look around. This spangled, carved-wood pavilion comes out of the 80-year-old spiegeltent (mirrored tent) tradition, in which velvet, brocades, leaded glass windows, and wooden floors create a sumptuous setting for wine tastings, cotillions, and (in Teatro ZinZanni's case) cirque in its most eclectic, all-inclusive sense. Each distinctly adorned spiegeltent is crafted, pitched, and interlocked by hand without either tools or nails; this one, the Palais Nostalgique, was built in 1926, is 66 feet in diameter, and seats 250 diners-cum-revelers. After 50 years of hosting a variety of amusements at fairs and festivals across Europe, it was restored by its builder's grandson, Willy Klessens, and since 1998 has been the setting for Teatro ZinZanni.
Even the lobby bar is dazzling, full of glittering, plushly upholstered splendor: cut glass, gold leaf, hand-carved wood, and burgundy velvet, with elaborately framed oil paintings, crystal-bedecked chandeliers, voluptuous settees, and buxom barmaids with Gold Rush décolletage scattered hither and yon. Against one wall is Leonardo's Boombox, a da Vinci--inspired mechanique of animatronic temptresses, purple neon, trumpets, triangles, saxophones, kettledrums, cymbals, and an accordion. It's a fine accompaniment to the venue's specialty cocktails -- preferably the Zootini, an ice-cold, sweet-and-sour admixture of Vox vodka and green-apple liqueur, served in a martini glass with a wedge of pippin. Another tasty option is the Diva, in which the Vox is combined with lime, cranberry, and pineapple juices; its sweet, citrusy flavor is ideal to this lively setting.
Inside the grander, mirror-lined dining room/performance space, booths mark the tent's circumference while tables rest in concentric circles around a central ring, the setting for most of the suppertime antics. At its essence the show is one expertly played, eclectically assembled routine after another, a rambunctious burlesque show/supper club/circus with an edgy overlay of 21st-century attitude. A sallow, dissipated maitre d' out of Cabaret leads the festivities: a poker-faced trapeze act, a nimble-fingered juggler, a leopard-skinned contortionist, plate-tossers, a tap dancer, Maria Muldaur belting out "Dontcha Touch My Leg," and a variety of Fellini-esque entr'actes, all of it accompanied by a sprightly orchestra of accordions, mandolins, clarinets, trumpets, tubas, and euphoniums. In between, actors, magicians, and other lunatics stroll from table to table disguised as waiters and busboys, crawling under tables, performing sleight of hand, and adding further ambient vaudeville to the dining experience. What's more, a drag queen known as Cookie announces each course with appropriate flourish and thespian vigor: a conga line for the salad, a triumphal march for the entree, a no-holds-barred, bungee-jumping, plate-spinning brouhaha for the dessert.
The food, prepared and served in association with Taste Catering and Stars Bar & Dining, is often surprisingly good, especially considering that 250 diners get the same thing at the same time in the grand old institutional tradition. The first of the five courses is an elaborate antipasto featuring a silky, port-imbued pâté; spears of focaccia ribboned with baby fennel; a dollop of light, lemony cucumber mousse; a dynamite, curry-edged hummus; a selection of pungent Mediterranean olives, fresh radishes, snap peas, and caperberries; and plenty of flatbread to scoop it all up. The celery-root soup that follows is a disappointment: It's got a hint of spice here and there and an attractive drizzle of parsley oil on top, but overall it's bland and watery. The soup is followed by a pleasant enough endive-cress salad with plenty of Gorgonzola and caramelized walnuts but practically none of the wine-poached pear advertised on the menu.
The entree's next: your choice of roasted chicken breast or vegetarian risotto cakes. The former is tender but burdened with a tedious mushroom-prosciutto stuffing and unremarkable mashed potatoes (although the blue lake green beans alongside are impeccably al dente). The latter, one red-pepper cake and one basil cake, are discernible more by their color than their taste or gummy texture, but the roasted vegetables that share the platter are hearty and admirable. Coffee and dessert conclude the meal, with an excellently rich and dark-hued semisweet chocolate mousse presented on chocolate shortbread, drizzled with orange essence, and sprinkled with bits of crunchy caramel brittle. To accompany the meal you'll find a hundred-item wine list with 11 selections by the glass and 13 varieties of sparkling wine (the ideal beverage in these surroundings), including Schramsberg Napa Valley's lovely blanc de noir. Also nice: Anchor's warm, well-rounded Old Foghorn Barley Wine, one of nine beers available.
ZinZanni's founder and artistic director, Norman Langill, has a broad theatrical résumé that augurs the diverse nature of his current enterprise. His past ventures include the One Reel Vaudeville Show; the Seattle Arts Festival; a live performance by the cinematic rock band Spinal Tap; the Grand Kabuki Theater of Japan's first United States tour; writing, directing, and producing for TV, theater, and the movies; and Gumbo Ya Ya, a musical about rice farming that premiered at the Barcelona Cultural Olympiad in 1992. It was in Barcelona that Langill laid bedazzled eyes on his first spiegeltent; six years later Teatro ZinZanni premiered in Seattle. The San Francisco production opened a year ago, three months after the Seattle troupe ended its original run.
All seating is preassigned and family style; it's inevitable that you'll bond with your fellow diners before the three-hour show is through. The fee ($110 for the Saturday performance, $99 the rest of the week) covers dinner, tax, gratuity, and the performance; drinks, drink tips, a service charge, and a TicketWeb charge are extra. (The TicketWeb fee can be avoided by purchasing tickets at the Teatro itself between noon and 6 p.m. daily; given the show's ongoing popularity, advance purchase is recommended.) This week Teatro ZinZanni celebrates its one-year anniversary with four days of special attractions, including free champagne, sweepstakes tickets, pre-show tomfoolery along the Embarcadero by the locally based School of Circus Arts, and a few surprises. On top of that the liquor's good, the food ain't bad, and it's a practical certainty that you won't be bored.