Theme Restaurants – From Tiki to Rock N Roll

Theme restaurants are known for their exaggerated décor and atmosphere. In a theme restaurant, the overall “concept” influences everything from the architecture to the food. Even the music and the drinks are carefully planned to support the feel of the restaurant. Many theme restaurants attract diners based solely on the theme itself. Though the food may take a backseat to the theme, many theme restaurants are also known for their unique and creative takes on traditional menu items.

The first theme restaurants are believed to have opened in the 1910s and 1920s. One of the first examples is Bernstein’s Fish Grotto, which opened in San Francisco in 1912 with an entrance created to look like the Nina, one of Columbus’ ships. Theme restaurants of the 1910s and 1920s were seen as isolated oddities, however, not an overall trend in restaurant style. Los Angeles was long known as the center of the theme restaurant movement; the city was home to Ye Bull Pen Inn, which opened in 1920 with a dining room divided into stalls and rough, unfinished wood panels for the walls and ceiling. Several other restaurants of this era in downtown Los Angeles were built to look like prisons or ships. What set theme restaurants apart, however, was not only the outward appearance, but also the creatively themed ambience found inside.

Over the years, several restaurant entrepreneurs have been named the father of the theme restaurant. One of these is Victor Bergeron of the famous Trader Vic’s chain of tiki restaurants. Another is Don the Beachomber’s, a tiki chain founded in 1934. Both restaurants served standard Asian fare with a unique tiki twist. Both are characteristic of the larger theme restaurant movement, in which the restaurant is not just about food, but about atmosphere and providing an escape from everyday life.

Another famous purveyor of theme restaurants is David Tallichet, who began in the 1960s to decorate restaurants with various themes, from Polynesian island resorts to French farmhouses to New England fishing villages. Most of his restaurants were located in Southern California, including the Proud Bird restaurant at the Los Angeles airport, where diners could listen to control-tower messages through headphones. Though theme restaurants had certainly been around long before the 1960s, most notably in the tiki craze that began in the 1930s, Tallichet is noted for popularizing the concept through his use of a wide range of themes.

Today, there are theme restaurants for dozens of themes. Some of the more popular are Medieval Times restaurants and other castle-themed enterprises, many of which offer nightly jousting contests or other shows, and the Rainforest Cafe chain, known for its tropical rainforest décor which often includes a show aquarium in the middle of the restaurant. Several other popular theme restaurant chains include the Hard Rock Cafe featuring rock music memorabilia and Planet Hollywood, known for its collection of movie memorabilia. Though these are among the most well-known themes, there are certainly others, ranging from commonplace to quite unusual, such as “das Klo” (“the toilet”) in Germany or “The Safe House,” a spy-themed restaurant in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.