Saturday, July 7, 2012

From Fashion to Fatigues - Theme Restaurants Abound in NYC

For a while in the mid-90s, it seemed like new theme restaurants were popping up all over -- I think the tipping point was when the Fashion Cafe opened in Rockefeller Center.  No, don't go looking for it, it was a very short-lived venture -- can you really serve burgers and french fries at a restaurant with a catwalk down the middle, or will carrot sticks and broiled chicken be the only items on the menu? Enough said.

There are plenty of other theme restaurants that survived and are still alive and kicking. And with two children in tow and desperate for birthday party ideas, I have had the "pleasure" of trying them all at various times over the past several years.

The Harley Davidson Cafe came and went quickly in NYC, but is thriving in Las Vegas.  (I'm starting to see a theme-restaurant trend...note to self, failed theme restaurants in NYC thrive in LV - is there a business model in the making?) You can probably imagine what this cafe/restaurant/shrine looks like, and for any half-way serious rider, it's worth a trip to the website for the virtual tour, and to the restaurant for an look at the over sized replica of the HD Sportster and the custom motorcycles on display, and any Elvis fan will want to see his signature bike. Oh, and the food is what you'd expect -- super-sized barbecued ribs, burgers, nachos grande, and the ever-present chocolate lava cake.  I'm not sure what "biker food" is supposed to be, but since the Fashion Cafe didn't serve baby carrots and poached chicken, I'll give the HD Cafe a pass.

The Hard Rock Cafe is one of the oldest, and probably one of my children's favorites -- but mostly because they liked walking under the car that appeared to hang out over the sidewalk at it's former location on west 57th Street.  That location closed a few years ago, and re-opened in tourist central, aka, Times Square. Yes, it's a big touristy place, but it's also lots of fun.  Make sure you read the history of the Cafe -- and you can be wowed by the fact that there are now over 70,000 guitars on the walls at the over 163 cafes, hotels and casinos around the world, or you can just go to the HRC and enjoy the music videos, the atmosphere, and the high-caloric food.  Nachos, potato skins and chicken fingers abound for starters, but skip them and go to the entrees -- the "legendary burgers" have some surprises, and the smokehouse sandwiches are a treat.  If you want to be more calorie conscious, try the goat cheese salad sandwich, or the salmon. In NYC, chain restaurants have to post the calories, and the HRC has a nice selection of dessert "bites" that are much lower in calorie than the full-fledged versions, and still delicious - the chocolate mousse "bite" is a favorite of mine.  The overall atmosphere is fun, loud and over-the-top. Don't forget to buy some souvenirs on the way out!

Planet Hollywood Restaurant and Bar is also located in Times Square, just a few steps away from the HRC, so if you're a movie buff instead of a rock n' roll fan, you can get your thrills here.  There's lots of memorabilia, including props, photographs and stills. Plus, there are movie clips showing on various screens.  The food is similar to the HD and the HR cafes -- burgers, fries, Caesar salads, nachos grande, and brownies or cheesecake for dessert (anyone see a trend here?) but that's not really the point of these places -- it's really all about the atmosphere, and Planet Hollywood has it in spades.  The restaurant is currently being renovated, and the website promises an "all new Planet Hollywood" opening in December of 2012.  It's been a while since we went there, so maybe I need to get some cousins to visit next year so I have an excuse to play tourist!

Mars 2112 -- I was excited to write about this one, as it was my son's favorite place to go for friends' parties, or when cousins were in town.  Then I looked it up online and realized it had gone the way of the Fashion Cafe, and is now a defunct theme restaurant.  This one stuck around for a long time, maybe partly because of the video arcade, as well as a pretty prime location just blocks from Time Square.  You entered via a simulated spaceship ride that would "fly" you to Mars.  When you left the ship, you'd enter a red-rock cavern and work your way either to the game room, or directly down to the restaurant. Alien characters would come to your table to visit, and you could eat funky-shaped chicken nuggets or burgers and french fries.  Sometimes we skipped the restaurant part and just went for the video games --  Dash plays a mean game of air hockey.

I almost forgot about American Girl Place and the now-famous (or infamous?) dolls.  I have to admit that this is an amazing idea for a store, and for a period of time, we spent many a Saturday visiting the store to buy accessories for Kate's doll.  We went to several birthday parties at the restaurant, where your doll actually has her own place setting and high chair seat. Didn't come with a doll? You can ask for "loaner", but be prepared to spend on a doll on your way out!  The restaurant has much lighter fare than the other theme restaurants -- poached salmon, lemon chicken, and roused beet salad are all on the menu, along with tic-tac-toe pizza and mac and cheese served with fruit skewers.  The chocolate mousse flowerpot dessert is cute and completely fits the theme.  You can skip the restaurant and take in a live theater production or a special movie screening. Or you can sign up for special events, such as a backstage tour of Radio City, or American Girl at Mary Poppins on Broadway.

Dave and Busters -- I think D&B helped cause the demise of Mars 2112.  It's hard not to like the Vegas-style game room, and the restaurant food is surprisingly not terrible -- on a recent visit I had a steak salad, which was pretty good.  Dash is quite the burger connoisseur, but opted for the make-your-own taco for his main course. There are fish choices mixed in with BBQ Chicken and Ribs and the Fried Shrimp platter, so there is definitely something for everyone.  For dessert, we ordered the fondue, which came with a variety of fruits and other dipping-options, although the chocolate was ho-hum.  We saw several kids parties going on, and could even imagine some adults having a good time.  Plan your visit, though, for time in the game room -- but wear a watch, otherwise you could lose track of how long you're there!

NYC Paintball & Laser Tag in Long Island City, Queens -- technically, this is not a theme restaurant. Aside from some vending machines for snacks and sodas, there's no food made on the premises, but you can order in some basic pizza for a party.  That said, this is a really fun place for a party -- kids AND adults alike will love some of the activities.  Kate took some girlfriends last year for a laser tag party and we had Dash's birthday party there this year.  There are lots of different ways to experience the thrill of laser tag or paintball -- depending on your pain threshold.  We opted for the Arena Laser Tag experience for Dash and his buddies.  The boys were armed with vests and laser guns, and divided into two teams with a professional squad leader dressed in fatigues and acting as their sergeant.  They played on a dark set with various rooms, including a bank, a restaurant, a store and a tank a bridge.  The goal was to "capture the bomb" and take it to the enemies base and blow it up before your all your squad gets killed.  It took a couple of rounds before the squads started figuring out a strategy and the game became more fun.  Even with a break in the middle, the boys were pretty sweaty.  They discussed strategy over pizza and chips, then went back in for a final round.  We had the 90 minute party-package, which was the perfect amount of time for an activity like this.  The company is adding new activities, and says that they hope to open up in Times Square.  Seems like the place to be!

Dash and his friends sitting on the tank and bridge.

It's easy to find the big yellow building. No one was harmed in the making of this birthday party.

I have a whole year to plan next year's birthday activities. Who knows what will be around by then?


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