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Novelty and theme restaurants seem to be more common outside the U.S., especially in Asia, but we’ve uncovered 20 unusual dining experiences right here in the USA, serving cuisines from the aggressively unhealthy to whimsical works of art. Some meals come with shows and some with surprises; some of the restaurants transport diners to another time, and one to another planet.
It’s a rare diner who will want to experience all of these restaurants, but click on ahead to see how many appeal and how many appall.
By Colleen Kane
Posted 25 Mar 2011
Location: San Francisco, California
Price: $19- $29 entrée
Located below the Fairmont Hotel, the circa-1945 tropical lounge the Tonga Room is a remarkably intact vision of midcentury Tiki culture. The Island Groove Band performs on the lagoon on a moving Gilligan’s Island-esque raft platform, and every half hour there’s an indoor thundershower. The Tonga room serves Pacific Rim cuisine and tropical cocktails served in tiki vessels.
But this historic establishment was recently threatened—when plans to demolish the space for condos were announced in 2009, it sparked an outcry, inspiring awareness-raising happy hours and the Facebook group Save the Tonga Room, which has over 7200 members.
Location: Las Vegas
Price: $12.73 for a Quadruple Bypass Burger
This hospital-themed burger joint may be gimmicky, but it’s also serious as a heart attack. Although many U.S. eateries seem to fast-track overeaters to the ICU, the Heart Attack Grill has openly embraced it, offering aggressively unhealthy food while posturing as a send-up of fast food and obesity.
The menu is simple: Bypass Burgers made of 1-4 patties (containing 0 .5 - 2 lbs of meat), shakes made with butterfat, and an all-you-can-eat bar of Flatliner Fries, which are cooked in lard. Rounding out the menu is full-sugar Mexican Coke, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and Lucky Strikes (or candy cigarettes for the little ones who are aiming high). A waitress in nurse gear wheels those who finish the 8000-calorie Quadruple Bypass burger out to their car in a wheelchair. Diners weighing in over 350 lbs. eat free . (The eatery’s spokesman, 575-lb. Blair River, died in March of 2011 at age 29. )
Location: Atlanta, Georgia
Price: hot dogs and burgers from $1.24 - $2.61
Car hops at the world’s largest drive-in (including a young Nipsy Russell) have been greeting customers at their car windows with “What’ll ya have?” since 1928.
The Varsity is pure 20th-century Americana, and the menu remains classic drive-in, not straying far from burgers, dogs, fries, colas and shakes, and their famous fried pies. A few things have changed : There are five locations, and today’s original Varsity in the Downtown location reigns over two acres, accommodating 600 cars and 800 people inside—the better to serve the 30,000 Georgia Tech Yellowjacket fans who visit each game day.
Location: Richland, Missouri
Price: $8 - 50
The Cave is the nation’s only restaurant located in (you guessed it) a cave, serving American steakhouse/seafood and Italian fare. The space may not get much natural light, but it has waterfalls, fish ponds, and even a view of the Gasconade River.
The space began as a natural cave that served as a dance hall in the 1920s, situated three stories up on a limestone bluff at a campground (visitors can still rent the cabins). Back then it was not spacious enough for 225 to dine, as it is today; the rest was carved and blasted out over the course of four years.
Price: Approx. $14,000 to rent, catering additional
The term “adventurous eater” normally refers to diners open-minded enough to try unusual foods, but in this case it means risking life and limb while eating dinner suspended more than 160 feet in the air.
Dinner in the Sky can accommodate 22 brave guests and 3 staffers for a meal in the air, and this one-of-a-kind experience can be held anywhere with enough space for the suspension crane. As far as the cuisine served in the sky, it can be anything—catering is not included in the cost of renting the restaurant.
Location: Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco, California
Price: $99 prix fix 3-course meal
It may be true that eating at one themed restaurant doesn’t feel all that different from other ones. But now for something completely different: dining in the dark. It’s a concept that started in Europe, in Berlin, Paris and Vienna, and Opaque offers the first stateside dining in the dark restaurants.
Guests order from a brief menu in a lit room before being led into pitch-black rooms by the team of blind and visually impaired servers. When the visual sense is shut off, the other senses are heightened, making for a newly extra-sensitive diner, and a distraction-free, immersive dining experience.
Location: San Francisco Bay, California
Price: entrées $26 - 39
Forbes is a floating island in Sea Lion Harbor with views of Alcatraz and nearby sunbathing sea lions. The restaurant serves an American fine dining menu, in underwater dining rooms, and it also has an underwater bar.
Originally built in 1975 by millionaire captain Forbes Thor Kiddoo as a private floating home, Forbes is constructed from concrete, rocks, sand, and topsoil and has a 45-foot lighthouse.
Location: San Francisco and Los Angeles, California, and international locations
Price: four-course meal $65 - 80
It’s supper, it’s a club and then some. Supperclub is a multisensory experience incorporating unusual food, music, dancing, and experimental and avant-garde live performances (supperclub performers are often culled from art schools).
The food is a four-course internationally inspired meal from chef Nelson German, served to diners who lounge fashionably on white beds.
Location: Lakewood, Colorado
Price: All-you-can-eat dinner $13.79
For almost four decades, Casa Bonita has been one of Colorado’s best-known restaurants, famous for its live show of Acapulco-style cliff divers, as well as strolling musicians, an arcade and a portrait studio. (If this sounds familiar, it’s also known to South Park fans as Cartman’s favorite restaurant , from the episode entitled “Casa Bonita.”)
As for the food, it’s Mexican with an all-you-can eat dinner option including their popular sopaipillas with honey. The restaurant is more than 52,000 feet, seating 1,000 diners.
Location: New York, New York
Price: entrées $13 - 30
Mars 2112 is a kitschy, kid-friendly outer-space-themed dining institution in the Times Square area. Themed touches include costumed alien hosts, Martian red lighting, otherworldly-named and presented cuisine (“star-field salmon,” “promethean pork chops”) and cocktails, as well as Crystal Crater, a “window to Mars.”
NOTE: Since the publish date of this slideshow, this restaurant has closed.
Location: Miami, Florida
Price: entrées $20 – 60, cover charge applies
Instead of breakfast in bed, how about dinner? B.E.D. stands for beverage, entertainment, dining, and that’s exactly what you get…in bed!
Executive chef Vitor Casassola’s menu includes cold appetizers like camembert tempura and tomatillo guacamole and entrees like surf & turf and Chilean seabass. And for dessert, an edible “pillow” called Cloud 9 Souffle.
Location: New York, New York
Price: 3-course meal $38 - 48
Imagine ninjas serving your Japanese/French/American fusion cuisine in a private nook of a subterranean feudal Japanese castle. You enter via through a dark path beset with armed “ninjas.”
Ninja’s signature dish for two to share is the Katana, which is Angus steak teriyaki, fried risotto and Alaskan king crab with a tomato mango sauce topped with white sauce and cheese. Bottom line: Ninjas.
Location: College Station, Texas
Price: $8 - 10
Someone thought of a way to make laundry day more pleasant: you can now drown your sorrows about shrunken woolens with food and beverage at Harvey Washbangers bar, grill and launderette. A light board allows diners to monitor their laundry’s progress without getting up to check.
The food is basic college fare, with offerings like the Banger burger, wings and chili, and for your personal “rinse” cycle, the beverage selection offers many more choices than just Bud.
Location: Carnation, Washington
Price: 2-course meal $19.15
You’ve seen Medieval Times and ye Olde Ren Faire, but here’s an independently run dinner theatre intent on giving guests an authentic Middle- Ages dining experience and education.
The food is prepared from actual 14th century recipes : the sample Dyner Menu includes Moutoun Camelyne (roast lamb in camelyne sauce) and Blamanger (rice and chick peas in almond-anise milk—they had vegan entrees back then?). For beverages, the choices are wine, mead, ale or juice. Witchcraftery such as cell phones and cameras are forbidden.
Location: Chicago, Illinois
Price: 21-course tasting menu $195
An evening trying the tasting menu at Alinea is on the bucket list of many a foodie. The artistry produced at Alinea is sometimes called molecular gastronomy, but if that doesn’t ring any bells, the menu recently included urchin, snow, and a venison dish with cherry, cocoa nib and eucalyptus.
Description doesn’t fully capture the fancy and whimsy of the chefs’ creations, but the food isn’t odd for the sake of odd: this widely lauded establishment is ranked No. 7 on San Pelligrino’s 50 Best Restaurants.
Location: Los Angeles, California
Price: entrées $19 – 48
Unless you’re a magician or you roll with Gob Bluth, you probably won’t get to see the Magic Castle restaurant, because it’s only for members of the Academy for Magic Arts and their guests—kind of like a Friar’s Club for magicians.
Housed in a castle-esque mansion dating to 1908, the restaurant serves entrees like strip steak and penne with rock shrimp paired with, naturally, magic shows. To gain entrance, diners say “open sesame” to a bookcase.
Location: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Price: dinner $8 - 26
The restaurant theme is espionage, and the codename is The Safe House. It has a nondescript entrance in an alley labeled International Exports, Ltd, and those who say the password gain access.
What’s the password? We’ll never tell. (But it wouldn’t hurt to say “control.”) If you still don’t know the password, you probably should not be a spy, and you may be commanded to “work” to gain entrance one blogger reported having to waddle like a penguin for 30 seconds). Menu is American, despite the appearance of “Spycialties , ” like the Soviet Defector (“spy’cy” BBQ pork ribs).
Location: Los Angeles, California
Price: entrées $6 - 20
Palms Thai is a lesser-known Hollywood Boulevard institution and local favorite in the shadow of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, the Walk of Fame and the Scientology Center. Sure, it has highly-rated Thai food, but the other claim to fame at Palms is Thai Elvis, the King…of Thai Town. If you go hoping to see Thai Elvis perform the hits, just make sure to call ahead to confirm his royal presence.
Location: New York, New York
Price: 3-course meal $32
There are imitators, but Lucky Cheng’s in New York’s East Village pioneered the concept of dinner served by glamorous drag queens. The Asian-American three-course meals come with a cabaret show featuring a bawdy comedian hostess and Asian dance performances by other drag queens. After the last show, karaoke and dancing for all.
Location: nine U.S. cities
Price: entrées $13 - 19
The theme at Dick’s is being a … rude person. The Dick’s wait staff earns their living by being jerks to customers, and the patrons are encouraged to give them attitude right back. If this sounds like your cup of sass-afrass, head to one in Vegas, Chicago, Boston, San Diego, San Antonio, Baltimore, Dallas, Myrtle Beach or Gatlinburg, slap on a paper prophylactic hat with an insult scrawled across it, and grab for a Fried Catfish or a Brisket “Sammich.”