Sure, their food isn’t technically the best, but the Rainforest Café can offer a far more memorable experience than its fine dining counterparts.
A child’s birthday party is one of the most terrifying places to be in the world. Screaming kids, an overwhelming quantity of balloons, and generally unpleasant food aren’t really things that most adult people find “fun.” But they do it, because kids are adorable, and adorable kids love annoying things. For years, I made my family go to the Rainforest Café for my birthday, reveling in chicken nuggets gasping for breath under an ocean of ketchup and robotic gorillas and the vague notion that, if I just looked behind the right door, I’d wind up in the Amazon. This summer, at the age of 24, I went back to Rainforest Café, and it was perfect.
If you’ve never been to this particular theme restaurant, it’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect in all its dilapidated glory. There’s Tracy Tree, the bug-eyed mascot who creepily blinks at visitors, framed by an enormous glass tube filled with water, sad green rocks, and no fish. (Yes, there used to be fish.) There are dino nuggets—children’s chicken fingers in the shape of dinosaurs. (You’re not crazy, there are no dinosaurs in the rainforest, but just go with it.) There’s a “thunderstorm” every 20 minutes, in which the lights turn off, mist drizzles from the ceiling, and the animatronic animals beat their chests. For a child, it’s thrilling. As an adult, it’s….. still kinda thrilling.
Theme restaurants are still fun for adults precisely because they make you feel like a child. On my most recent visit, each time the thunderstorm began, I started giggling like a little kid. I mean, It’s a thunderstorm! In the restaurant! It’s not an everyday dining experience, but it’s not supposed to be—give yourself permission, as an adult, to skip out on Blue Apron or poke bowls or whatever else you’ve convinced yourself to eat every night and sink into the weird, goofy, immersive fun of a theme restaurant. Just because their charms are obvious, doesn’t mean they’re inferior.
Maybe the large, laminated leaves aren’t your cup of tea—if you live in New York, there are many other options for wacky themed children’s dining. There’s Medieval Times, the theatrically planned celebration of jousting, glasses shaped like castle towers that light up underneath your alcoholic slushie, and chickens you eat with your hands. There’s the Jekyll & Hyde Club, a vaguely Gothic carnival of lame animatronic mummies, murderers, and monsters attempting to simultaneously frighten children and publicly shame their parents into doing the YMCA. And there was Mars 2112, the dearly departed space-themed analog of Rainforest Café which came complete with a ride, a built-in arcade, and some very famous patrons.
These theme restaurants are exactly as crass as you’ve been led to believe, and for the prices you could definitely eat better food presented in a more “elegant” or “hip” or “objectively clean” atmosphere—but that’s precisely why they’re so much fun.
Sure, Medieval Times may force you to eat with your hands and spend an hour floating around through a bunch of retail stalls hocking everything from replica swords to dragon statues to an inexplicably licensed Legend of Zelda shield, but there’s also a hawk that swoops around the arena, horses that do tricks, and a batty king. Even though the knight representing my friends on our recent visit lost, he looked kind of like Jason Momoa. He also threw a carnation to my roommate and gave her some pretty smoldering bedroom eyes. I am currently planning their wedding.
Jekyll & Hyde is one of the more forlorn places I’ve been in New York, especially at 6:45 pm on a Monday. But the lone actress playing a man-killing English ghoul was so inspiring in her attempts to raise the energy level that I was delighted, amused, and, briefly, spooked. (Also, the Jekyll & Hyde nachos are pretty good, and probably a couple of dollars cheaper than you’d find at a sports bar.) You’d never have an in-character conversation about the joys and dangers of auto-erotic asphyxiation in any other environment, and certainly not as a child (probably). And you’d never actually get the chance to put your bathroom behind a creepy bookcase.
There’s a distinctly American impulse to create kitschy approximations of places we may never go. Consider Six Flags’ “Mardi Gras” or “Yukon Territory” themed areas, or most of the theme casino temples in Las Vegas. (Only in Las Vegas could you find something as colossally insane and wonderful as New York New York.) Of course these replicas, frequently aging and made on a decidedly small budget, are off-putting and sad, at least if you’ve internalized the sort of sensibility that dictates they must be so. But they’re also expressive of a certain need, and taking them as they are fills a hunger for something besides dino nuggets. Why wouldn’t you want a mini-thunderstorm in your restaurant?
There’s a small number of even good meals I remember fondly in my most nostalgic moments, and an even smaller number I’ll remember in a decade. But I don’t think I’ll ever forget the dumb, dumb delight of shrieking at a thunderstorm between burger bites, or shoveling nachos into my mouth while a mummy laments the tough times that brought him to this sad establishment.
Aziz Ansari Shows Us What’s In His Carry-On
MORE STORIES LIKE THIS ONE