We live in an age where themes permeate our every day lives from the stores we shop at, the books we read, and the restaurants in which we eat our food. It used to be that restaurants were restaurants; you could eat at Joe’s or you could eat at Mary’s or any other from a list of single syllable named locales. But Americans have a very short attention span and the inevitable creation of themed restaurants, or theme-staurants, evolved to the point where there is nothing more truly American than a restaurant loosely based on some other country in the world, but within which you can get no truly indigenous cuisine from. So get ready to travel around the globe with me while we explore a few different popular and confusingly inauthentic theme restaurants!
1) The Outback Steakhouse
Theme: The Australian Outback
I’m not positive on this, but I don’t think the aboriginal peoples of Australia had deep fryers with which to cook their Bloomin’ Onions. I’m also not entirely sure on this, but I don’t think they slathered their Kookaburra’s with hot sauce and served them on a platter with an accompaniment of bleu cheese. Either way, this restaurant is clearly themed as though you are in the actual Outback with stuffed koalas, boomerangs and didgeridoos all attached to rustic and dark colored walls. The high school homeroom look to the place is perhaps the draw which keeps people returning here, over and over again. Make my steak Outback Style mate!
2) The Olive Garden
Theme: Cuisine Authentico Italiano
Not every theme-staurant sends their chefs halfway around the world to visit the very heart of where their food comes from, but thats just one of the extra steps you can expect the staff to take at this favorite among women seeking a romantic evening out. After all, they have pasta and as we all know, the only thing Italians ever contributed to the world on a culinary level is pasta; well, pasta and pizza…but don’t order the pizza at The Garden because it’s not Italian, it’s DiGiorno (which is an Italian phrase, loosely). Also, why is it that the name for this place sounds like I should be walking into a Greek Restaurant, not Italian? They should have named it something a little more culturally identifiable like “The Mob Garden” or “Casa de Pasta.” If anything, that’s what this restaurant truly lacks: schmaltz. The idea that I can be part of a family for a day is a welcome touch though, even if it’s only until I walk out the door.
3) Taco Bell/Taco Time
Theme: South of the Border Mexican Fast Food
Now these might not technically be theme-staurants as they are fast food joints, evidenced by the general lack of kitsch, but the goal is the same. They will share a spot here despite being different on a few levels because their general theme is the same: Mexican food on the go. One uses an absurdly cheap menu as their driving advertisement while the other uses the fresh ingredients and cleanliness that everyone associates with Mexico, hawked by a talking cactus with sunglasses who is strangely named Ned. The great thing about them is that both will guarantee some south of the border commotion if you eat too much…just like drinking the water you weren’t supposed to. It’s the theme that stays with you even after you’ve left.
The most simple theme for a place to have is one based on the food and Skippers goes for just that. Their food is straight from the sea to your mouth with all the porthole windows and buoys to prove it. Many people may talk bad about Skippers for their supposed lack of quality and standards and many people may be right. But those same people will go back to eat an all you can eat fish ‘n’ chips because where else can you go to get fried fish, potatoes, hush puppies and corn bread? Places like this are a testament to the simplicity and breadth of possibility of the deep fryer, seeing as how that’s the only item used to cook anything in the entire theme-staurant. I’d bet even the chowder takes a dip in there before it reaches your mouth.
5) Old Country Buffet
Theme: Poverty Meets Abundance
I’m not positive which Old Country this buffet is from, but every ethnic group that refers to their homeland as “the Old Country” tends to remind one of giant soup kitchens where the hungry masses rub their bum-gloved hands together while waiting in line for their state-sponsored meal. OCB on the other hand is a refreshing update to this tragedy, adding an all-you-can-eat buffet with full course meal possibilities. For the relative cost of what you might pay at any other restaurant in this price category, you get any course you want, in any amount you want, at any time you want. Want to start with dessert? Go grab yourself a soft-serve cone with a slice of key-lime pie. Care for a glass of milk? Have 4! This is the ultimate in overindulgence for those that can’t afford to overindulge in good things. The food at OCB might be old, but your desire to keep eating it to get your money’s worth will never die and that’s a theme that is definitely learned from the Old.
6) Rainforest Cafe
Theme: Animals, Trees, and Animatronics
This has got to be the king of theme-staurants. The people who created this one went all out, making papier-mache’ trees and vines, running rivers and ponds moving and squawking animatronic birds and creatures and a soundtrack of sounds from deep within the rainforest itself. This is a bold statement that if you’re going to do something, don’t do it half-assed because you will only leave people wanting more. What you want is to completely satisfy their urge to go to the location you recreate. Luckily, with all the money spent on the theme itself, the food is overpriced and below quality so I would say that this theme accomplishes its goal hands down. The rainforest is way too expensive to eat in again so I’ll just go down the street to…
7) Cheeseburger in Paradise
Theme: A Cheeseburger in Paradise
This one would be hard to write about, never having actually eaten at one of these theme-staurants, except that I can imagine if I was in Paradise I’d probably want a cheeseburger. And it would be worth every damn bit of sacrifice to get a cheeseburger in Paradise, just don’t forget the onion slice. And don’t forget to to get and then become the cheeseburger in Paradise.
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