Have you ever made a replica of Devils Peak with your mashed potatoes (see Close Encounters) or dressed a table elaborately for a holiday dinner? If so you have already have the food-theming bug and probably enjoy a more elaborate dining experience… on occasion of course.
The trick to proper theming, from a food point of view if balancing the presentation of the food with the décor of the location. Often, restaurants get it half right, focussing on the surrounding decorations but ignore the food completely. Major theme parks seem to have perfected the art of this balance in many cases, while the cookie cutter chain restaurants fall short in that the theming is engaging (if not sometimes cheap) and the presentation of the food is interesting, but the taste leaves something to be desired.
Permanently themed eateries have it very difficult balancing all 3 of these with the concept of keeping current. Often times we see restaurants that were “very cool” when they opened but later seem old and outdated by modern standards.
The two major frontrunners as always are Universal and Disney, with Knott’s pulling up close behind. The two heavyweights seem to push the bar with every themed location, not just leaving it for sit down restaurants. While both allow their locations to sometimes show their age, they seem to be pushing the theming of both food and décor with each opening.
Some old standards still pull their weight though. At Disney, certain restaurants still maintain their charm (see Sci-fi Dine-In, a BtT favourite) while others have lost it a bit and reviews from fans on both aging of the theming to the general poor food reviews have forced Disney to review things yet again. Universal seems to be doing the same. A recent trip to Universal Orlando had us dining at Mythos and though the food was decent enough and the theming adequate, it was certainly showing its age in the rock work. The look of Mythos still carries over however because it is not based on reality, but rather the old Sinbad style movies which features “not so realistic” set pieces and rock work. How this will translate to future generations, many of which have never seen these films remains to be seen.
By using themes for locations that “never-were” designers are allowed to both let their imaginations run wild but also stand the test of time, at least from a visual perspective. Then it is up to the chef and food managers to match that theme with their culinary creations. Creations such as those at the Cosy Cone Motel (see Chilli Cone Queso) in Disney’s California Adventure’s seem to have taken this concept one step further.
An old fashioned chicken dinner is easy to match to the rustic theme of Mrs Knott’s because that level of theming is nostalgic and simple. Matching your food to the roadside diner of Flo’s in California Adventure is equally as easy as these locations existed (keeping them healthy is another story). The real trick comes in when your theme concept involves locations that never existed in real life. You may have a zombie themed (sadly we have not found this place yet) restaurant but how do you make all the food and drinks appealing when your main theme requires your guests to eat fresh human meat. Tricky eh?
An interesting example of real life theming taken to the extreme would be restaurants such as Zauo in Tokyo where patrons sit in large boats indoors and fish off the edge to “catch” their dinner, which is then prepared and served to you. Extreme? Yes but a good example of niche marketing and capitalizing on theming, where a normal seafood/fish restaurant would do.
Finding the right theme for a food seems to be the issue. You can dress up a drink with an umbrella or put it in a tiki cup and call it a tropical delight, but how do you make a steak resemble a fire breathing dragon? It is quite easy to walk into a well themed “Irish Pub” and order a dish entitled “Irish Nachos”, which is just wedges with nacho cheese and salsa or some version of that. We hold high hopes that in the coming years, theme parks will step above the cliché model of just naming their food and move on to actually theming the dishes themselves.
Locations that have attempted this are few and far between, even less have done it successfully. You can theme a restaurant to match a remote location at the base of Everest and serve Asian cuisine but that is about as close as most theme parks have gone. We will see if the shift to a more immersive dining experience can occur outside of the random themed location in Las Vegas or spread across Japan cities. Until then, we will just have to see what the theme park giants can do outside of food trucks and macaroni and cheese dino-bites.
Do you have a favourite themed dish that you have experienced out there? Let us know as we are always on the lookout for something to prove our theory wrong!