Charleston’s latest dining trend: magic shows


It's tricky

Today in trendspotting: Magicians in Charleston restaurants.

Not two days after reporting that the Music Farm is now home to Platia food truck and its accompanying magician Edoardo Pignataro — who provides table-side slight of hand as guests eat the pop-up’s Greek food — Henry’s on the Market has announced that it too has joined the growing restaurant-meets-magic scene.

[content-1] Henry’s, the oldest continuous restaurant space in the state, has announced that it will host illusionist Howard Blackwell once a month for a Whisky Room performance.

According to a press release, Blackwell’s Charleston Magic Parlor act (which premieres Feb. 17) starts with a cocktail hour at Henry’s, followed by “a fantastic hour and a half theater-style show in an intimate parlor setting, then the guests will be invited to enjoy the evening with a few drinks at the rooftop bar overlooking the Holy City.”

But Henry’s and the Music Farm aren’t the only one’s cashing in on prestidigitation. Le Farfalle has been, well, working its magic with The Southern Charmer Kellar O’Neil since 2016. O’Neil, the self-proclaimed “mystifier of the finest affairs,” operates his Palmetto Crescent Parlor just across the street from Michael and Caitlin Toscano’s Italian restaurant at 49 Archdale. And while he may not perform inside of Le Farfalle, for $80 you can enjoy dinner and a show with a Palmetto Crescent Parlour menu at the restaurant before heading across the street to the “master of the mind’s” showcase.

Caitlin says that Le Farfalle opened at roughly the same time as O’Neil’s Parlor and the partnership just made sense. “His clientelle were asking him where to eat,” she says. So the businesses decided to partner on a package deal, and it’s been a hit.

“We get more than I thought we would, a few a week,” says Caitlin of diners reserving the dinner and a show combo. And it’s more than just food and tricks, O’Neil sends a costumed assistant over to the restaurant to escort guests to his parlor. The package is so popular, in fact, Le Farfalle has even hosted a bus tour group from Savannah. “It was 50 people, and we had to serve them in waves. We did 25 then flipped them,” she says, adding, “We roll with the punches.”

But while dining magic, and its accompanying trickiness, may be new here — historian David S. Shields says that while Charleston’s 19th century coffee houses had a penchant for “exhibitions of sapient pigs, mummies, and at least one ventriloquist,” we were short on our own resident Houdini — the trend certainly isn’t new in the rest of America.

According to the book Chicago Magic: A History of Stagecraft and Spectacle, the end of vaudeville in the early 1930s meant the end of a key performance space for illusionists. Lavish sets and assistants had to be cut and were replaced with close-up magic performed in nightclubs, bars, and restaurants. Chicago’s Schulien’s restaurant helped pioneer close-up magic. In fact, Schulien’s great grandson Bob continued to carryon the tradition as recently as 2016 at Chicago’s Magic Lounge. There “magicians wandering the floor greet you with an illusion at your table, and the host might encourage you to approach the bar for some card-trick sleight of hand.”

And what’s not to love? The pairing of great food and sleight of hand makes perfect sense. “A Psychologist’s Guide to Why We Love Magic” claims magic plays into three human reactions — delight, wonder, and superiority. Delight as our brain works to understand the impossible, the childlike sensation of wonder, and the intoxicating sense of superiority. As Dr. Dave Verhaagen explains, for many participants, magic is “another opportunity for them to compete, to be better than someone else.” Hmm, sounds like a few Charleston diners I know…

Whatever the case may be, the new table tricks trend isn’t strictly a Charleston phenomenon, of that we can be sure. Our recent surge in restaurant magic coincides with a similar rage in Sydney, Australia. A Jan. 13 article in the Daily Telegraph reports thatThe magic business is undergoing a revival across Sydney as bars and restaurants add magicians to the flower-sellers, photo-takers, wandering musicians and waiters popping up at your table.”

The sell for a magician makes perfect sense. As one magician told the Telegraph, “You get bigger reactions from people after they have had a few drinks.” As for the restaurants?

For Pignataro, a food truck owner and magician, it’s an opportunity to showcase his side business. As he told us, “It’s a completely different experience between the quality of the food and magic that I promise no one is doing around here.”

As for Henry’s, manager Chris Massey says it’s an opportunity to bring in a different clientelle. “It’ll be fun. I hope to get a chance to sit in the audience myself.”

Howard Blackwell first performance at Henry’s is Feb. 17. Cocktails start at 6:30 p.m. and the show starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are on sale now at CharlestonMagicParlor.com

Edoardo Pignataro performs his magic during lunch and dinner at the Music Farm daily.

The Southern Charmer dinner and a show tickets are available every Friday for $80. Tickets are on sale at thesoutherncharmer.com.

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