Vintage theme-restaurant matchbooks. Photo: Kristan Lawson
Vintage theme-restaurant matchbooks. Photo: Kristan Lawson

The server’s spaghetti-strapped, fringe-fronted, scarlet flapper dress makes her look — as she glides bearing a lemongrassy “Lucky Luciano” cocktail past soaring columns and snappy-hatted dancers under classic chandeliers — languid, liquid, lava-esque.

Chicago, 1929?

No: Alameda, 2014. Occupying a historic former bank building, hosting bay tours in gangster Al Capone’s actual yacht, Capone’s Speakeasy is one of several fun, immersive new theme restaurants daring to dot a region that takes eating so seriously as to be … well, scary.

Admit it: Around here, once the forks come out, the laughter kinda stops.

Mixing fun with food constitutes a Bay Area business risk. What happens when you tell basilisk-eyed marrow-munchers: Watch jousters over your starters! It’s not all about the food!? The owners of Capone’s Speakeasy will soon know. As will the owners of 50,000-square-foot, stratospherically ceilinged plank [lower-case p], opening in Jack London Square October 10 and boasting full-sized bocce courts, bowling lanes and arcade games.

Bowling lanes and mega-TVs at plank. Photo: Kristan Lawson.
Bowling lanes and mega-TVs at plank. Photo: Kristan Lawson.

And as will the proprietors of Cat Town, America’s first cat café, opening in Oakland on October 25. Its customers can hang out with adoptable live felines in a miniature Oakland, port and all.

“We know that people care about rescue cats and want to help them, but most won’t go to a shelter to do that — thinking the experience will be too depressing. The café provides an easy way for people to spend time with the cats and become invested in what happens to them,” says co-proprietor Ann Dunn.

“It just made sense to me that if people came in casually to drink coffee and hang out with cats, it would increase the number of cats who are adopted.”

Photo courtesy of Cat Town Cafe & Adoption
Photo courtesy of Cat Town Cafe & Adoption

Theme restaurants used to be a thing: Looking at you, Tonga Room. But with rare exceptions such as the Rainforest Café, Hard Rock Café, Medieval Times and certain Las Vegas casinos, theme restaurants as a once-ubiquitous genre fell out of favor soon after Richard Nixon did — because everything became so seeeeerious, including food. Those over a certain age mourn Manhattan’s Auto Pub, whose booths comprised car chassis, Chicago’s Shanghai Lil’s, with its “Chicken Chow Mein Frisco” and Polynesian dance revues, and countless other classics.

Vintage theme-restaurant menus. Photo: Kristan Lawson.
Vintage theme-restaurant menus. Photo: Kristan Lawson.

But — because reality is now officially unbearable? Because hipsters, today’s Marie Antoinettes and Louis XIVs, demand the neo-rococo? — theme restaurants, with their cowboy hats and clown shoes, have been bouncing back.

Urban Putt, a high-tech Mission District minigolf restaurant-bar owned by an ex-PC World editor and featuring steampunky holes nodding to icons including Jules Verne and Playland-by-the-Sea, opened last May. Open since 2011, carnival-themed Straw in Hayes Valley serves a “Bearded Lady” sandwich, a “Ringmaster” burger and cotton-candy cocktails. Open since 2010, SoMa’s Fondue Cowboy serves “Rawhide,” “Outlaw” and “Happy Trails” fondues while screening black-and-white Westerns. Dogpatch’s Third Rail, which opened last December, maintains a train motif.

The "Nautilus" hole at Urban Putt. Photo: Cesar Rubio
The “Nautilus” hole at Urban Putt. Photo: Cesar Rubio

This trend is spreading worldwide. Taipei has a Mattel-licensed, pink-on-pink Barbie Café. Pittsburgh’s Conflict Kitchen serves food only from regions currently in political conflict withs the USA. Tokyo’s The LockUp evokes a dungeon. At Taiwan’s burgeoning Modern Toilet Restaurant chain, customers sit on toilets while eating corn-studded chocolate ice cream. Glass-ceilinged Ithaa Undersea Restaurant in the Maldives is actually located sixteen feet underwater.

But in the Bay Area, it always comes down to the food. Does anyone besides tourists visit Rainforest Café and Hard Rock Café, dozens of whose restaurants have closed recently and whose San Francisco outposts are located on Fisherman’s Wharf for an obvious reason? In the Coi/Yelp era, everyone’s a critic — and, rawhide and astroturf aside, the make-or-break will always be: How do you source your Flying Saucer Succotash? Are these funnel cakes sustainable? Clown-suited servers can’t distract from — or overcompensate for — the meh merguez or substandard sundae anymore.

Today’s Bay Area theme restaurateurs know this. Urban Putt’s head chef Dane Boryta has helmed the kitchen at Sens and owned the Bottle Cap. Urban Putt’s drinks menu was designed by Scott Baird and Josh Harris of The Bon Vivants and Trick Dog. Damien King-Kostelac, formerly of Town Hall Restaurant and now executive chef at Capone’s Speakeasy, graduated from the California Culinary Academy with honors. Cat Town will serve local Bicycle Coffee and locally sourced snacks. The beer garden at plank serves fifty handcrafted brews. To produce tasty, fusiony fare such as char siu tacos and scallop ceviche, plank’s executive chef Jason Moniz, formerly of Orinda’s Table 24 and Oakland’s Flora, sources ingredients from venues within a five-mile radius of his kitchen, such as the Jack London Square Farmers’ Market and Oakland Chinatown.

Jason Moniz, executive chef at plank. Photo: Kristan Lawson
Jason Moniz, executive chef at plank. Photo: Kristan Lawson

With its jellyfish and sea-urchin chandeliers, chambered-nautilus ceiling, Oyster Bar, Beluga Ballroom and spendy seafood menu, Union Square’s Farallon asserts an undersea ambience. But if this was the 1960s, its servers might wear mermaid tails and coconut-shell bras.

Would that be a good thing?

Yesteryear’s theme restaurants abounded in imagery we’d find shocking today. Buxom servers wearing grass skirts and skintight space suits. Menus depicting brown, bones-through-their-noses “natives.” Coolie-hatted busboys. Serape-draped mannequins “asleep” under rubber saguaros. With locations in Salt Lake City, Portland and Seattle between the late 1920s and late 1940s, the Coon Chicken Inn was based around the theme of black railroad porters.

Sure, in many ways these fantasylands with their all-inclusive themeyness — right down to the jungle sounds and gold-pan plates — transported visitors across galaxies and centuries, rescuing them from work or school or war, inspiring future cosmonauts, zoologists, historians and sojourners.

But.

Today’s theme restaurateurs must prioritize offending no one.

In the Bay Area, that’s pretty hard. Last month, the owners of a week-old Castro-district restaurant — not a theme restaurant, just an ordinary Mexican place — changed its name to Hecho after activists tagged its original name, Bandidos, as a racial slur.

Potential offense lurks everywhere. Capone’s Speakeasy could offend temperance advocates, or the descendants of gangland-violence victim. Its name referencing Jack London Square’s nauticality, plank — as in “walk the” — could by virtue of its nomenclature offend anyone who ever suffered at the hands of pirates. Urban Putt could offend people who were uncoordinated or unpopular as kids.

Joking aside, we might wonder: Can a cat café and a gangland-themed bar acquire enough loyal local regulars to stay afloat?

Theme restaurants located in tourist traps are pretty much guaranteed steady business. But rather than attracting regulars, tourist-trap restaurants feed an ever-changing flow of one-time-onlies.

The Bay Area’s new theme restaurants aren’t located in world-famous tourist traps. They’re deep in the neighborhoods, and in Oakland.

This might, in fact, be all the more reason for locals to love them. Wait, what? Someone went to the trouble of designing and creating a full-on fantasyland and hiring an executive chef not for outsiders who might settle for mediocre food as long as it comes with a view of the bridge, but for my neighbors and me? Some fantasies are meant to be conjured not just once but again and again. That’s why we call them our “happy places.” And sometimes, they come with friendly felines and flaming cocktails.

With Bowling Balls, Cute Kittens and Cotton-Candy Cocktails, Theme Restaurants Bounce Back 7 October,2014Anneli Rufus
  • Thomas Lee Mullins

    With theme restaurants, it is not just eating, it is an experience, IMO.

Author

Anneli Rufus

Anneli Rufus is a Mystic Mint-craving, award-winning journalist whose work can be found at Psychology Today, Spirituality & Health, Experience Life, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Huffington Post and other venues. She is also the author of numerous books, including Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto and Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself.

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