Eat This Theme
Because of an ugly rift between supermodels at the uberchic Fashion Cafe in New York, you can no longer dine at a table beneath bras and panties once worn by Christy Turlington. She came in a snit and yanked them down. You might still grab a coveted spot in the shade of Claudia Schiffer's skivvies but expect to slide the maitre d' a double sawbuck at least, to circumvent the waiting list. Here's something to chew on: if you find yourself frequently eating in restaurants where the used underwear of the staff is a prominent part of the decor -- time to re-examine your life. Something has gone awry.Granted, the drawers dangling in the Fashion Cafe are unlike those of mere mortals. They are anointed, having slid beyond lanky limbs to grace the subtle curves of pure hotness. And for the most part they're in good condition; no holes, fraying, skidmarks or exposed elastic. Still, underwear is underwear and once worn, belongs in the hamper not the dining area, even when lobster bibs are in short supply. Only in a bonafide theme restaurant would such a thing even be considered.With the astonishing success of establishments like Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood, rampant themeism has corrupted our thinking, clouded our common sense. Actual food consumption is no longer a crucial part of dining out. It's about the experience. "The food doesn't have to be all that good, as long as it doesn't poison you," says Tim Zagat, publisher of the Zagat restaurant guides. "You go because you are interested."Which explains the success of a hash house like Fashion Cafe, where the "owners" are borderline anorexics whose idea of a hearty meal is to lick a stamp and gnaw their cuticles. The Fashion Cafe dessert cart is a pack of Marlboro Lights on a skate.Hungry? Well you must want a multi-media interactive celebrity-fronted entertainment complex with an on-site merchandising outlet. Everybody else does. Theme joints are the fastest growing segment of the restaurant industry, exploding in recent years. Analysts project it will be a $5 billion cash cow by the end of the century. Robert Earl, CEO of Planet Hollywood and the Official All Star Cafe, explains the allure, "For 15 bucks a head, we take people out of reality."Yes, that heady mix of over-priced burgers and the genuine purse carried by Estelle Getty in Stop or My Mom Will Shoot, is more than enough to lift the dark veil from our hollow existence. No wonder we're so eager to plunder the gift shop, slather ourselves in logos and serve as an army of walking billboards. Hard Rock Cafe is the granddaddy of themerys, starting off as a single greasy spoon in London with Eric Clapton's guitar hanging on the back wall. But when its T-shirts began showing up on hipsters everywhere, business zoomed and a concept was born. Today over 24,000 bits of pop history circulate among the cafes, mostly instruments, clothing and personal effects, but the collection does contain some museum quality pieces. Such as an actual 75 carat marquise cut chunk of Jimi Hendrix's vomit. Absolutely priceless.Global expansion of the restaurants continue at a pace that makes Starbucks seem lazy and unorganized. According to spokesman, Jonathan Grevatt, Hard Rock International plans to open "a cafe a month until the millennium." Robert Earl recently announced construction is set to begin on a Planet Hollywood in Aukland, New Zealand. He envisions over 300 restaurants operating in a few years. "I intend to build an empire," Earl shyly confided to Fortune Magazine. The Planet Hollywood brand will soon include toys, fragrances, retail stores, casinos and hotels.With the four branches of Celebrity -- movie stars, musicians, athletes and supermodels -- already under contract, the new wave of theme restaurants relies more on elaborate settings and dazzling special effects to seize market share. In the Rainforest Cafe customers are greeted by erupting volcanoes, thunderstorms and mechanized jungle animals. Live birds, like macaws and cockatoos flit amidst the lush foliage. Cover your plate.Jekyll and Hyde is a spooky tomb decorated with coffins and leering gargoyles, skeletons occasionally burst into song and a wall of masks comes alive and talks to customers. At the Harley Davidson Cafe diners can straddle a rumbling, smoking hog, posed in front of a open road backdrop, while a video camera records the whole Cheesy Rider moment.At this rate, traditional restaurants that sling the grub without the gimmicks will fade away. Eventually misty-eyes fogies will prattle on about the good old days when restaurants had doors, not mazes, when the bugs were real, not animatronic, when meals weren't delivered by remote controlled mini-choppers and busboys weren't mounted on zebras.They'll make it sound so quaint, so darling, some gutsy entrepreneur will start up a chain of theme restaurants based solely on food, service and value. It will fail. What kind of nutty theme would that be?