When it comes to dining out, people want much more from a restaurant than just good food. They want an experience.
According to the National Restaurant Association, there are currently 990,000 restaurant locations in the United States. So restaurants across America need to constantly one-up each other and find the most creative and bizarre themes to keep them alive in this competitive industry.
Dancing with drag queens or indulging in cuisine from war zones are just a couple of off-the-mark dining attractions one can experience in the U.S. CNBC spoke to the owners behind some of America's most innovative restaurants and found out what truly sets them apart.
Read ahead to see our list of unusual American restaurants.
—By Jenna Bussiere, special to CNBC
Posted Aug. 20, 2014
Location: Colorado Springs, Colorado
Established in May 2002 by owner Steve Kanatzar, The Airplane Restaurant transforms a 1953 Air Force plane into a place to dine. So strap yourself into a seat on this Boeing KC-97 tanker, where waiters dressed as flight attendants will serve you such dishes as "Flying Chicken Florentine" and "Air Tower Nachos."
The actual airplane itself seats 42, and an attached restaurant holds 275 other people. If you're not lucky enough to dine inside the aircraft, don't worry. Its engine and one of its wings are in the restaurant, decorated with over 100 photos and memorabilia from the long history of American aviation. The restaurant is 15 miles southeast of the Air Force Academy.
If you love foreign food and geopolitical aggression, then Pittsburgh's Conflict Kitchen is the place for you. Diners express their views on matters of world politics, while feasting upon the cuisine of those countries with which the U.S. is currently embroiled in tension.
The kitchen changes its menu and exterior every few months, in order to keep up with present political events. It accompanies each new menu with such events as discussions, performances and speeches so diners can learn about the culture in these areas of discord.
Co-owner Dawn Weleski told CNBC that the restaurant is currently serving Venezuelan cuisine and has also served food from such hot spots as Afghanistan, Iran, Cuba and North Korea.
Theme: Prohibition Era
Inspired by the underground nightlife of Prohibition-era Arizona, The Duce recreates a historic 1928 warehouse. Its name derives from the police of the era, who referred to the warehouse that would transform into a party spot at night as "the deuce."
The restaurant is equipped with a full gym and boxing ring and offers personal training and fitness classes for those who want to get in a workout before dinner. It also has a full bar, kitchen, recreation center, shopping center and a 1915 Chicago-inspired soda fountain.
Owner Steve Rosenstein describes the food to CNBC as consisting of "forgotten recipes," such as the Mac N' Cheese muffins, cooked from scratch in the restaurant's 1965 trailer.
Theme: Roaring '20s
Chicago's Tommy Guns Garage transports guests to the Roaring '20s through a three-hour-long dining experience that allows them to embrace their inner Al Capones. The restaurant is loaded with 1920s memorabilia, music and a 1928 Model "A" Ford. The check may even be brought out to you written on a napkin, according to review on Trip Advisor.
According to director Chris Adams, diners give a password to the host "gangster" upon arrival. The restaurant then puts on an interactive dinner show that includes performances from flappers and gangsters, followed by a police raid in which audience members are subjected to sobriety tests. Adams told CNBC.com the re-enactment of the St. Valentine 's Day Massacre is the most popular performance theme.
Location: Beverly Hills and San Francisco
San Francisco's Stinking Rose incorporates garlic into almost every item on the menu, which explains the slogan, "We season our garlic with food." The world's largest garlic braid along with 2,635 other garlic bulbs decorate the ceiling, helping it live up to its name.
The restaurant takes garlic to new places by including it in dessert items, such as Gilroy's Famous Garlic Ice Cream. According to co-owner Jerry Dal Bozzo, the Bagna Calda ("garlic soaking in a hot tub") is one of the most popular items on the menu. He also told CNBC.com that the staff takes the garlic out of dishes upon request, transforming it into what he refers to as "Dracula's food."
Location: Park City, Utah
Theme: Nomadic Tribe
If you're up for some adventure and a six-course Norwegian-inspired meal, head to the Viking Yurt in Park City, Utah. This dining excursion starts with a 23-minute sleigh ride up 1,840 feet of snowy mountain to the eating destination, a portable tent-like shelter known to ancient Mongolian nomadic tribes as a yurt.
Located at the Park City Mountain Resort in Utah, the Viking Yurt is only open from December to March, when the mountain is most covered in snow.
Location: Several Locations
Theme: "Throwed Rolls"
All the bread you can eat, if you can catch it. Lamberts Cafe is famous for throwing rolls of fresh bread at its diners. It's also known for its Southern cooking. According to its website, the restaurant cooked 253,980 pounds of chicken last year and 2,246,400 individual rolls.
Owner Mike Church appeared on the Travel Channel in 2010, where he explained that the signature roll-throwing was inspired in 1976 by original owner Norm Lambert, who couldn't reach a costumer to hand him a roll. He tossed it, and a tradition was born.
The original Lambert's Cafe is located in Sikeston, Missouri. It now has two other locations—in Ozark, Missouri, and Foley, Alabama.
Location: New York
Theme: Trailer Park
If you're officially over New York's high-end, fast-paced lifestyle, just make your way to the city's Chelsea neighborhood. This is where you'll find the Trailer Park Lounge, which pays tribute to a lifestyle far removed from that of most hardened New Yorkers.
Part of an actual trailer is mounted on the wall, but that's subtle compared to the rest of the kitschy decor, which includes a mannequin in a beer-filled bathtub, walls covered with Elvis memorabilia and decorations out of the type of bargain store that Dolly Parton sang about. You can also get your tiki fix here, sit at a bamboo bar near artificial palm trees and drink margaritas with such names as "Jim Bob's I.Q."
Location: New York
Theme: Drag queens
If your idea of a perfect meal includes getting a lap dance from a drag queen, then LIPS is the place for you. Every Tuesday to Sunday in New York City, diners experience such drag spectacles as "Bitchy Bingo" and "Blackie O Nasty's Retrotastic 80's Drag Revue."
LIPS is a frequent party spot for brides-to-be and will even help you celebrate a divorce, according to owner Edward Lafaye. He told CNBC.com that one of the restaurant's most popular performances is Ginger Snaps Broadway Brunch, which features a drag twist on Broadway show tunes. LIPS is also known for alcohol.
"We always remind our guests to drink up, because the more your drink the better we look," Lafaye said.
On CNBC's "Restaurant Startup," which airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET, restaurateur and TV personality Joe Bastianich and chef and restaurant operator Tim Love vie against each other to invest their own money in food concepts they believe will make them millions. Each week, two teams will make their case to our investors for a shot at launching a temporary version of their great concept for a restaurant or a specialty food shop. Then we'll open the doors and test the concept on the public. At the end of the process, our two investors will decide whether or not they will put their own money on the line to make someone's dreams come true.