What's the deal with theme restaurants?

By By Robert St. John food columnist
Sept. 18, 2002
Robert St. John is the executive chef/owner of New South Restaurant Group. His weekly food column appears in newspapers throughout Mississippi and Louisiana. If you have questions or comments he can be reached at robert@nsrg.com or (601) 264-0672.
In the 1990s, theme-oriented restaurants were all the rage. America was smack dab in the middle of a booming economy and venture capital was plentiful.
Investors (read: suckers) enticed by high-profile celebrity partners, were throwing money at restaurant concepts like the government throws subpoenas at Enron.
The origin of the theme-restaurant craze can be traced to the opening of the Hard Rock Caf in 1971. The Hard Rock is the granddaddy of all theme restaurants.
You know you have entered a theme restaurant if the dining-room walls are filled with autographs. I have a theory: The quality of a restaurant's food and service is directly proportional to the amount of autographs and celebrity memorabilia hanging on its walls the greater number of autographs the worse the food.
Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sly Stallone started the Planet Hollywood restaurant concept in the early 1990s. Planet Hollywood features movie memorabilia, spotty service and marginal food. The restaurant's entire premise is based on Hollywood, which means it's as shallow as the town it represents. The company was bankrupted a few years ago. Customers finally figured out that Leonardo DiCaprio was not going to be frying their cheese sticks.
The sports-themed All Star Caf was opened by Joe Montana and Wayne Gretzky. It featured burgers, chicken wings and autographed tennis racquets. Whoopee! Customers walked in expecting to be served by Andre the championship tennis player and walked out because they ended up with Barry the struggling actor.
Dick Clark, the 236-year-old former-DJ-turned-game-show-host-turned-talent-show-host-turned-blooper-show-host-turned-awards-show-producer-turned-Hollywood-multi-millionaire, opened the American Bandstand Caf.
At the Bandstand Caf, one could do the hustle or dance the robot while eating a ham sandwich.
At the Harley Davidson Caf, one can view an actual T-shirt signed by Peter Fonda. Wow! At that point, I could die happy. Why go to the Smithsonian or the Metropolitan Museum of Art when you can go to the Harley Davidson Caf?
Maybe the most ill-advised theme restaurant was The Fashion Caf. There was a Fashion Caf in New Orleans for about 25 minutes. A Shoney's now occupies the building. The Fashion Caf placed a group of supermodels (most certainly tried and proven restaurateurs) in the highly competitive restaurant business serving food that even supermodels wouldn't eat. Eat a salad while looking at Elle MacPherson's shoes in a glass case, now there's a concept with staying power.
In New Orleans there is a restaurant called The Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. Here is an entire restaurant concept based on a secondary movie character (Bubba from the movie "Forrest Gump"). Could this be the next trend in the theme-restaurant craze?
If so, I would like to see a few restaurants based on my favorite movies. How about Luca Brasi's Godfather Caf "Eat with us or you'll sleep with the fishes." Clark Griswold's Vacation Caf "Where Cousin Eddie is always busy in the kitchen." Apocalypse Now Cafeteria "I love the smell of roast beef in the morning." Monty Python's Holy Grail Diner or the Raising Arizona Bistro.
The problem with theme-driven restaurants is a majority of the time most of the effort and resources are placed into the theme and not the food. Most theme restaurants are so memorabilia-heavy that the capital needed during start-up is way above the norm. Therefore, entree prices are much higher than the competition. Theme restaurants are usually good for one or two visits. When the novelty wears off, the customers are gone.
Some might say, "Wait a minute, bucko. You own a theme restaurant." It is true; the Crescent City Grill has a New Orleans theme. But our focus has always been on food and service, not what is hanging on the walls. There are no autographs on our walls; we don't have Huey P. Long's boxer shorts locked in a glass case. And at the Crescent City Grill we feature more than just New Orleans-style food.
I might not look like Elle MacPherson and I can't throw a football like Joe Montana, but I can cook a wicked white chocolate bread pudding. And if you catch me on the right day, you might even talk me into doing the robot.
Crescent City Grill Bread
Pudding
1/2 cup butter
1 cup sugar
5 eggs
2 cups heavy cream
1 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup raisins
2 loaves French bread (crusts cut off and cut into cubes)
Cream butter and sugar; add eggs, heavy cream, vanilla and cinnamon. Place liquid ingredients and half of the bread into the bowl of an electric mixer and begin mixing on slowest speed.
As bread begins to break up add more bread to the bowl until the mixture becomes like a damp (not too wet) mush. Add raisins and place all into a greased casserole dish and bake covered at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.
Uncover and bake another 15 minutes until a toothpick stuck into the center comes out clean. Serve with whiskey sauce.

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