Saturday, April 07, 2007

Variations on a theme restautant

Next week I'm in New York for a conference with a couple of colleagues, one of whom sent me email suggesting we go eat somewhere one night. Oh, okay, twist my arm. I know she's a bit of a foodie (she did some cheffing in a previous life) and she's also up for fun, so I suggested Ninja.

She wrote back a little later. "I checked around," she said, "and it doesn't look as though the food is very good there."

"Yeah," I protested, "but it has ... ninjas ..."

And there it is: my guilty secret. I'm a sucker for theme restaurants.

Let me define, though. It's not "nail up a few chunks of movie memorabilia, name your burgers after actors and say you have a Hollywood-themed restaurant." It's not even "make your Italian food seem more authentic by covering the walls with Italian movie posters and playing
that blind guy's CD over and over" (Papa Razzi, I'm looking in your direction).

And it's certainly not "yeah, the food's not great, but our customer base is more interested in the, um, decor" (
Hooters, obviously, but also the Hawaiian Tropic Zone and --terrifyingly--the upcoming "Girls Gone Wild" franchise. I weep for the future.)

A real theme restaurant goes the extra mile. Considers every detail. Braids food and design and attitude to create a seamless experience.

Oh. Hmm. This is interesting.

I was going to talk about the way Ninja fulfills my requirements: inventive and unusual dishes, Disneyfied "ninja village" decor, black-clad waitstaff that occasionally drop from the ceiling and effortlessly slice diners clean in two. (okay, maybe not the last. But just watch this, willya?)

Or my experience of Mars 2112, some seven years ago, when it was new and funky and the fantasy was flawless, from the rocketship ride to the TVs showing Martian news to the "Solylent Greens" salad. (Sadly, it's apparently now shabby and tacky and they charge a $2 cover to ride the spaceship.)

But now I'm thinking: what restaurant isn't themed? El Bulli has a theme: molecular gastronomy served to the lucky few who are granted a table. Craigie Street Bistrot has a theme: modern French bistro dishes made with local, seasonal produce. Meritage's theme is pairing food with wine (rather than the other way around). Reverential, professional service and stylish, tasteful decor come standard.

Is it fair to use the "theme" label here? Sure, these places don't entertain diners with animatronic buffalo or waitstaff who break into '50s pop songs. But their branding is no less focused.

And they make sure nothing weakens the brand--that is, interferes with a diner's belief in the theme.

Because getting frozen strawberries in your dessert at CSB would be like seeing a headless Mickey Mouse backstage at Disneyland.

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