Dinner and a movie is the standard date-night lineup, but those craving something a little less conventional might consider some of the entertainment options available at local restaurants. And we’re not talking live music (although that has its appeal, too). Believe it or not, you can experience a night in Rio, or Hawaii, or Santorini without leaving the county limits, thanks to a handful of venues that offer an interactive cultural experience along with their cuisine. Here are a few options for a fun and festive night on the town with an international flavor.
Moqueca Brazilian Cuisine
3550 S. Harbor Blvd., Oxnard
204-0970 or www.moquecarestaurant.com
Saturdays through Labor Day, 7 and 8:30 p.m.
This Channel Islands Harbor restaurant has become a local favorite for its refreshing caipirinhas and seafood-laden stews cooked in the traditional clay pot from which the Brazilian food establishment gets its name. But on summer weekends (and special occasions throughout the rest of the year) Moqueca turns up the heat with a colorful samba show.
“Brazilian Carnival and dancing has become more popular through the years,” says owner Roberta Reis. “I think it brings that Carnival feeling, like you’re in a different world. It’s not something you see very often.”
The group Moqueca works with is OYA Samba, run by a dancer, model and actress who goes by the name Daniela Brazil. Born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, she studied ballet as a child and got interested in samba at the age of 13. She moved to Los Angeles in 2000. She and her group of dancers perform at restaurants, festivals, private parties and other venues throughout Southern California, which is how Brazil got to know the Reis family. OYA has been performing at Moqueca for seven to eight years.
“Usually samba shows are on a stage,” Brazil says. “This is more of a California way.”
With the big feather headdresses, sequin bikinis and colorful leggings and arm sleeves, it’s a lavish display of music, movement and costumes. There is no dance floor at Moqueca, so dancers perform a routine near the tables, and then work the crowd, encouraging customers to join in. And they do, shaking their groove things and embracing the rhythm and dance.
Traditional samba costumes can border on risqué, but Brazil keeps her Moqueca show distinctly PG. “This is a family place,” she says. “I make the show for people to feel comfortable. The way I present the show is a very friendly way, very welcoming.”
Reis says that she likes the sense of frivolity and spectacle that the samba dancers bring to the restaurant. “It breaks that serious, fine-dining idea, and brings more fun.” Customers agree, judging by the crowds that pack the house every weekend. “Last summer, we had it every other weekend,” Reis recalls. “The Saturdays [that we had the show], we were way more busy. So this year we’re offering it every Saturday.” Live Brazilian music (by a singer and guitarist) is also featured from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.
Maybe not quite a night at Carnival, but Samba Night at Moqueca is still an interesting way to spend a Saturday, with friends, family or even a date. “People can have a little taste of samba,” Brazil says. “It’s a way to bring culture to the customers, and encourage them to learn more.”
DeeDee’s Aloha Island Dolls
Hong Kong Inn, 435 E. Thompson Blvd., Ventura
648-3161 or www.hongkonginn.com
Once a month, the Hong Kong Inn embraces its tiki-rrific vibe with a Polynesian revue that’s straight out of a Shag painting. Which isn’t to say that DeeDee’s Aloha Island Dolls are completely nontraditional — but as troupe leader DeeDee Henry explains, the show owes more to Elvis’ Blue Hawaii than to the sacred dance forms of the cultures of the Pacific Islands.
“We gear it towards more of the Hollywood style,” Henry says of the vintage presentation. “It’s very tiki-inspired. We are not trying to teach Polynesian culture and history. But we are very respectful of tradition with our style of dance; there is an authenticity. We do some Tahitian, too — really cool stuff with drum beats. And we have a lot of fabulous costumes.”
She and her five dancers perform dances taught by Henry’s mother-in-law, Elaine Henry-Tavares, who has been teaching Polynesian dance for 30 years. Henry herself trained with Tavares for several years, and both teach classes in Ventura County. Many of the Dolls are recruited from these dance classes.
While Henry admits that the group uses recorded music, she says none of the selections is newer than the 1970s. And there is a personal connection to some of the tracks: Tavares’ father-in-law was Ernie Tavares, a renowned Hawaiian musician, and she developed some unique dances to go along with his recordings. “It is very personal, a very family feel to what we’re doing,” Henry says. “These are dances my mother-in-law has been teaching for 30 years. You’re not going to see that anywhere else.”
Also adding to the family feel is the involvement of Henry’s teenage daughters — “my little stars” — and her husband, Fuse of Hard Six, who handles lighting and sound, acts as emcee, sings and plays ukulele. “He’s kind of a Dean Martin/Don Ho combination,” Henry laughs. Even their 8-year-old son, playfully called “Short Fuse,” is part of the act. “He gets up with Fuse and sings ‘Pearly Shells’ with him. That’s an audience favorite.”
As at any good dinner revue, the audience is encouraged to participate. The dancers are happy to bring diners up to try their hips at the hula, but getting children to participate is a real treat. “We like to bring up the kids that are brave,” she says. And while there are regulars who don’t miss a show, it’s always a different mix on Aloha night, with packed tables and standing-room-only at the bar. “It’s a nice crowd,” Henry says. “And it’s cool that we can do this family thing.”
Belly and Folk Dancing
The Greek Mediterranean Steak and Seafood
1583 Spinnaker Drive, Ventura Harbor
650-5350 or www.thegreekventura.com
Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 7:30 p.m.
The Greek at Ventura Harbor has a large patio with a view that’s perfect for leisurely drinks and savory noshes like hummus, garlicky skordalia or spinach-laden spanakopita. But inside on weekend nights, the action is on the dance floor, where for nearly three solid hours diners are entertained by a variety of performers.
A belly dancer gets the crowd warmed up, with lifts, drops, shimmies and undulations that are as graceful as they are mesmerizing. She’ll also slip through the crowd for tips, but it’s really an opportunity to get customers engaged and, with any luck, up on the dance floor themselves. Greek culture is all about family, and children are always welcome. When moms, dads and grandparents join the belly dancer with their little ones in tow, it’s impossible not to be charmed.
As alluring as she is, the belly dancer is just an amuse bouche compared to the traditional Greek dancers that follow. Wait staff, friends and family (led by Aris Mikelatos, son of Lynn and Makis Mikelatos, The Greek’s owners) get into the groove, linking arms and performing line dances with intricate footwork. This is followed by Ozzy (of Mexican descent, but “Greek on the inside” according to Lynn Mikelatos) and Dmitry, stars of the show, who display their acrobatic prowess and perfect rhythm with kicks, jumps, handstands and a low-to-the-ground backbend that any limbo champ would envy.
Another highlight is the double wine-glass dance, where two glasses are filled and carefully balanced, one on top of the other, on the dancers’ heads while they caper around the floor. Plenty of wine has no doubt been spilled through the years, but it’s a rare occurrence. These advanced moves are best left to the professionals, but the ouzo-drinking dance — whereby diners attempt to lift a small glass of ouzo using only their mouths — is a real crowd-pleaser. (Children can do it, too — with the ouzo being switched out for water.)
Tina’s Ports of Paradise
Various venues around Ventura County
When Tina’s Ports of Paradise (frequently called TPOP) puts on a show, it’s something like a condensed tour of the South Pacific told through song and dance.
“We take our audiences to the main islands of Polynesia,” explains Ha’atoa Sione Francois Fifita Moe Tuitama Vainuku, a TPOP performer, instructor and musician. “Hawaii, Tahiti, Samoa, dances and songs from New Zealand. We also give a taste of the Cook Islands.”
From traditional Hawaiian hula to the Maori haka to the Samoan fire knife dance, the large troupe (which frequently features more than 30 participants, both men and women) delivers an electrifying and energetic performance, full of chanting, call-and-response and rhythm. Accompanying the dancers is a full band, with six Tahitian drummers, ukulele players and, according to Vainuku, “some of the best vocalists in Polynesian show business.”
TPOP’s founder is Vainuku’s mother, renowned Polynesian dancer and instructor Kilisitina “Tina” Tuatara Vainuku. Although he and sister Kilisitina “Little Tina” Salotetupou Laeanela Moe Tuitama Vainuku have taken over most of the group’s operation, the original Tina continues to act as emcee and oversee choreography. “My mom is American Samoan-born, and raised in Hawaii. She’s been performing since the age of 5,” Vainuku explains. The daughter of an American Navy man, she moved to Port Hueneme as a young girl, and the city remains TPOP’s homebase.
TPOP has become one of the most respected organizations in Polynesian dance, competing (and winning) in competitions across the country, notably the Heiva Tahitian festival in San Diego, where TPOP earned first-place honors four years in a row. The 2016 prize package included an invitation to study with dance masters in Tahiti, which the troupe intends to use during the summer of 2018. The group held a fundraiser in May to support the trip (80 TPOP members plan to attend) and hopes to offer something similar next spring as well.
Local audiences were once able to see TPOP every weekend at the Hong Kong Inn and Golden China Restaurant, both in Ventura. The troupe gave those gigs up when it took the show on the road. “It was time for the group to spread and travel abroad,” Vainuku says, noting that they have had lengthy residences in Oklahoma, Minnesota and all over the Southern U.S. Tina’s sister, Vita, lives in Utah and operates a similar troupe out of Salt Lake City called Malialole, and TPOP members sometimes perform there as well.
TPOP’s local presence continues, however. It offers classes for all ages at Ocean View Pavilion in Port Hueneme, and at a new studio in Santa Barbara. The troupe also performs at festivals, fundraisers and private parties. Catch them this weekend at the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life in Oxnard on Saturday, July 15, and in August during the Ventura County Fair.
“We’re still here, and we’re still performing,” says Vainuku. And still spreading that Aloha spirit across the county.