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New Age for Diners: 11th Century : Old Times Are Good Times for Restaurant in Buena Park

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<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Buena Park is home to the newest Serf City, USA--a theater where about 570,000 people this year will wear funny hats and pay up to $25 to eat with their hands and watch horsemen try to knock each other back to the Middle Ages.

And they said chivalry wouldn’t sell in Southern California.

When Medieval Times opened almost two years ago, industry observers predicted that the Buena Park restaurant and theater couldn’t attract a consistent stream of patrons.

After all, its format was odd, unchanging and unquestionably out of date. At least 11 times a week, knights do battle and joust for a fair lady’s hand. Serfs and wenches stand anxious and waiting to do their masters’ bidding. And guests do exactly what everybody’s mother said not to do--eat with their fingers.

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But Orange County’s Medieval Times--one of only two such restaurants in the United States--has done so well that its owners are seriously considering opening another restaurant in San Diego and possibly one more north of Los Angeles.

Its success hasn’t gone unnoticed. Starting next month, 1520 AD--a restaurant patterned after the era of King Henry VIII--plans to reopen about half a mile away. Its owners hope to eventually expand to about 10 locations, mostly in California.

The competing restaurants could find themselves jousting for customers. “As big as (the L.A. area) is, I don’t think that two (medieval-themed restaurants) makes sense,” said Stanley Kyker, executive vice president of the California Restaurant Assn.

For the time being, though, Medieval Times has a monopoly on the Middle Ages. An estimated 820,000 patrons have paid $18 to $28 each to visit Medieval Times since its opening. Last month, 49,000 customers saw the show--an increase of almost 30% from 38,000 in March, 1987.

And by the end of this year, Medieval Times expects to set an all-time attendance record of 570,000 patrons. That would generate gross sales of $18 million to $20 million, said Executive Vice President Andres Gelabert.

The key to this success seems to be a format that is virtually one of a kind in Southern California. “It’s so different that it’s just a wonderful gimmick,” said Frank Wyka, producer of the nearby Grand Dinner Theatre in Anaheim, which puts on Broadway production-style shows.

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Right now, there are only a few restaurants with a medieval touch. The Abbey in San Diego serves conventional dinners in a 95-year-old church with stained-class windows and beamed, vaulted ceilings--but it long ago did away with costumed monks as waiters.

In Marina del Rey and Irvine, Gulliver’s is an Old English-style restaurant with servers dressed as wenches and squires and a dark, pub-like interior.

In the early 1970s, there were three 1520 AD restaurants in Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Diego. These medieval taverns served a single-course dinner of either beef or meadow hen and featured a noisy, bawdy show in which patrons were placed in the stocks, and customers were encouraged to hurl bread at neighboring diners. The company expanded to seven restaurants throughout the country before business soured and the chain closed.

One of the prior owners, Daud Alani, plans to reopen 1520 AD on May 15 in its original Anaheim location on Beach Boulevard. Alani says patrons will be entertained by a court jester, a magician, singing wenches and King Henry VIII himself.

But even 1520 AD has no plans to bring in a fleet of horses and a castle full of knights. “(Medieval Times) has jousting--which may be more acceptable than the gluttonous spectacle (featured at) 1520 AD,” Kyker said.

When Medieval Times says that its spectacle is old-fashioned, it isn’t kidding.

The restaurant’s show is clearly aimed at the middle-aged--by about 895 years. It takes place in a hall done up to resemble an 11th-Century castle in the days of Camelot. The action takes place on a dirt floor in the middle of a 70,000-square-foot arena.

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Patrons sit in theater seats behind long, wooden tables, wearing paper crowns that are coordinated with the color of the knight representing their seating section. Those wearing green crowns, for example, cheer on a green-garbed knight--while booing and hissing his rival, a black-and-white knight who is jousting for the section across the arena.

A big part of the appeal is that customers become part of the show--sometimes going so far as tossing a chicken bone into the arena to show their support. Sections of the 1,000-seat Grand Ceremonial Arena gang up and compete with each other, shouting their support and responding noisily when “their” knight scores a win.

The merriment starts with the six knights and their attendants parading across the arena on horseback, followed by games of skill, such as javelin throwing and ring piercing.

Next, costumed wenches and serfs serve huge platters of roasted chicken and spare ribs, herb-basted potato and apple tarts. Dinner is served without cutlery, and soup is sipped from bowls.

And then the battles begin. Knights challenge each other, fighting and jousting until one is left to choose a queen from the audience.

“It’s nice when they pick a little girl,” said Maryann Powell, a Medieval Times spokesperson. “This guy,” she said while indicating the restaurant’s green knight, “inevitably picks the prettiest one with the shortest skirt. I’ve got to bribe him to get him to pick a little girl.”

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“It’s great. The winner triumphs, and the bad guy gets wasted,” said Mike La Mont, 40, a Southern California beer distributor who attended a recent show.

“You can see the sparks fly, and you know they’re not messing around,” added Stephen Mars, 36, a San Fernando plant manager who brought his wife and three sons to see the show for a fourth time last week.

While Medieval Times attracts some convention business, executives said 75% to 80% of the customers are like La Mont and Mars: Southland residents who travel from as far as 150 miles away to attend the show. Only 10% to 15% of guests are children.

The restaurant is owned by private investors who started the first Medieval Times 22 years ago in Majorca, a Mediterranean island located off the coast of Spain. The partnership runs a second similar operation at Benidorm in the Alicante region of Spain.

The concept was imported to the United States in December, 1983, when the partnership opened a Medieval Times in a 1,100-seat arena in Kissimmee, Fla., near Disney World. The Florida facility today hosts about 480,000 patrons each year. Attendance in Orange County this year should outstrip the Florida restaurant.

“Everybody likes to go back in years, and we take everybody back to the 11th Century,” Gelabert said. “It reminds you of a feast, doesn’t it?”

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Of course, putting on a meal fit for King Arthur isn’t always a cinch. Despite the Middle Ages atmosphere, Medieval Times has more than its share of modern-day problems.

While the jousting is staged, injuries aren’t. The knights practice two to four hours daily, said Powell, the spokeswoman. Even so, one knight’s leg was broken recently when he was hit with a lance during a performance, she said.

Maintaining a show with more than 35 horses and 70 performers, including serfs, wenches, knights, squires and one king is costly, too. And while much of the restaurant’s business comes from word-of-mouth recommendations, about $600,000 a year is spent on marketing, Powell said.

Even so, Gelabert said Medieval Times is more than paying its way.

The establishment’s expected gross of $18 million to $20 million this year compares to $14 million the restaurant said it recorded in 1987. “It’s gone up every year,” Gelabert said.

While he declined to divulge specific earnings information, Gelabert said the restaurant is turning a profit.

“Every time I see it, I see something different,” said Jan Horne, 55, of La Mirada, who brought out-of-town visitors to her third show the other day. “It’s a make-believe world where you forget about your problems and everyday life for a few minutes. Suddenly, you’re not fighting cars and traffic, and there’s nothing like it.”

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Of course, you can’t please everyone all of the time.

“There was no Jewish knight--no Sir Irving, Sir Morris or Sir Saul,” teased Ray Lutts, 60, from Manhattan, who was in Orange County recently for a beer wholesalers convention. “You couldn’t do a show like this in New York without a Jewish knight.”

Other than that, Lutts added, “It’s a hell of a show.”

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