“Open wide — the airplane is coming in for a landing!” That ploy or some variation of it has been repeated in households across America since time immemorial as a way of getting toddlers to eat. Sadly, it seems, some people never outgrow the need for diversion at mealtimes. And diversion is precisely what they find on the menu at theme restaurants, the palate’s answer to a day at Six Flags.
Also known in the trade as “concept restaurants,” theme restaurants in their most benign form are full-fledged eateries with an unorthodox design scheme — the Rainforest Cafe chain, with its abundant flora and occasional “thunderstorm,” is a prime example. In far too many, however, the event (whatever form that might take) is the compelling reason for a visit, while the food is relegated to an afterthought.
It is doubtful, for example, that anyone ever walked away from a meal at Medieval Times, across the river from New York in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, and raved about the roasted chicken or the spare ribs or the garlic bread. What brings people to this venue (which has been built to look like a castle) is the two-hour tournament, which includes jousting, swordsmanship, hand-to-hand combat, equestrian events, and falconry. The cost is $57.95 per adult, $34.95 per child. Medieval Times has “castles” in nine cities, including Chicago, Dallas, and Toronto.
At Ninja New York, the theme is feudal Japan, carried out in an underground maze of dungeon-like rooms and hallways that are meant to appear sinister. If they fail to throw a scare into your weary bones, count on an armed ninja warrior leaping out of the shadows and holding a knife to your throat to get the job done. A full menu of hot dishes and sushi are one hand, though the majority of patrons opt for katana, $50 per person, which is essentially a Japanese surf and turf, consisting of steak teriyaki and Alaskan king crab.
I have written in this space about the dark dining events featured sporadically at Camaje in the Village. If you don’t mind traveling, you can visit the source of dark dining at the now-defunct Dans le Noir (“In the Night”). To make the experience truly authentic, the restaurant is staffed by blind and visually-impaired servers. (Unless diners are required to sign hold-harmless statements, this sounds like a lawsuit waiting to happen.)
You can probably name a dozen restaurants that have aquariums. But how many can you name where you are seated in an aquarium? To my knowledge, there is only one, the restaurant Ithaa, and to savor this experience you have to travel half way around the world to the Maldives Islands. The restaurant is situated 16 feet down in the briny deep and prides itself on its 180° panorama of the sea around it. The restaurants makes no promises that a shark won’t come by and take a dump while you’re feasting on your seared fillet of reef fish (don’t ask where it came from) or rather ho-hum-sounding beef tenderloin with pan-fried potatoes. The restaurant, which is part of a Hilton, does not permit children under the age of 12, which seems to be missing the point. It is precisely children under 12 that are most likely to be impressed by a restaurant like this.