When you envision a theme restaurant, you may think of a Hard Rock Cafe or a Rainforest Cafe, maybe even Planet Hollywood. And while two of those spots still exist, newer theme restaurants are taking a more modern, upscale approach to the often-campy aesthetic.
In fact, theme restaurants are more appealing than ever before—and they’re actually serving some pretty good food, Bon Appétit reported on Wednesday. Adapting to this day and age, establishments have embraced a visual aesthetic suited for Instagram and TikTok, and enlisted chefs with Michelin- and James Beard–worthy pedigrees. And it seems like that effort is paying off.
At Las Vegas’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea—a fine-dining restaurant inspired by the Jules Verne novel of the same name—the two nightly seatings are typically sold out months in advance. There, guests are paying $355 a person to indulge in an underwater-inspired adventure, albeit one that comes with a 16-course tasting menu speckled with premium ingredients like black truffles, uni, and Wagyu beef.
“I tell people all the time, I’m the luckiest chef in the world,” Taylor Persh, the executive chef at 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, told Bon Appétit. “I get the opportunity to build crazy things and to live this fever dream every day.”
Pop-ups are similarly fertile ground for a theme restaurant—take the Malibu Barbie Cafes that opened in New York and Chicago to celebrate (and promote) the release of the Barbie movie. Decked out in the film’s signature pink hue and featuring props like a life-size doll box that fans could stand inside for the perfect pic, the restaurants were a hit with Millennial and Gen Z diners. Plus, the food wasn’t just an afterthought: The MasterChef semifinalist Becky Brown curated the menu, which included dishes like pink hummus, funfetti pancakes, and cauliflower (CALI-flower) bowls. It was on-brand fare with true culinary bona fides.
The trend is symptomatic of an overall desire for experiences among diners, especially after a couple of years of cooking at home and eating takeout in your pandemic PJs. While this was percolating before Covid started, it’s hit a fever pitch now, and people throughout the country want a big bang for their buck. Some are thinking, If it’s not dinner and a show, why even bother?
The only thing that could top that, though? Dinner as a show—exactly what a theme restaurant is serving up.