The '90s were the era of tight-rolled jeans, grunge rock, and Beanie Babies, but the decade was also home to the themed restaurant craze. Many were short-lived enterprises, despite the presence of celebrity entrepreneurs. But a few still carry on today, even if they feel like something of a throwback to a different time.
Theme restaurants, however, were not a phenomenon unique to the '90s. Modern eateries in this vein stem from the 1930s when establishments like Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic's created an engaging Polynesian-inspired experience for patrons. And in the '70s, Hard Rock Cafe, arguably the most successful themed restaurant, began serving food and nostalgia.
Though many contemporary chain restaurants, such as Applebee's, Bennigan's, and Chili's, share virtually identical decor and atmosphere, they're not generally considered themed restaurants since they lack an overarching immersive premise or experience. But themed restaurants didn't disappear with the '90s, as unusual ones still stand today.
Fashion CafePhoto: Kimberly Butler/Contributor / The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
42786Is this a weird concept?
- The Concept: The '90s were also the era in which fashion models became superstars, so the union of supermodels and theme restaurants was perhaps the most appropriate marriage of ideas. The premise of Fashion Cafe was similar to Planet Hollywood, except instead of movie-star backers, supermodels promoted the enterprise. The models were not part owners, but paid spokespeople who would receive a portion of the eatery's future profits.
- The Opening: Fashion Cafe was the brainchild of Italian entrepreneurial brothers Francesco and Tommaso Buti. Tommaso came to New York City from Italy in 1989 and started making connections within the city's real estate and celebrity circles. Recognizing the sudden popularity of runway models, he joined forces with his brother to open the first location in Rockefeller Center in 1995. In the spring of 1995, the gala opening of Fashion Cafe was set up like a red carpet. Among the attendees: "spokesmodels" Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, Elle MacPherson, and Claudia Schiffer, as well as Gianni and Donatella Versace, David Copperfield, and Stephen Dorff.
- The Decor: The restaurant was decorated with some of the fashions once worn by the most popular models of the day. But the emphasis was never really on fashion, as Tommaso admitted before opening night: "With something like this, you cannot go too deeply into fashion. The public is not that educated and not that interested. They want to see more the glamour and the entertainment of fashion."
- The Merchandise: Fashion Cafe sold plenty of branded merchandise, including $28 t-shirts.
- Its Status Today: The restaurant was initially quite popular and grew to eight locations around the world. Within three years, however, every single one had closed. In 2000, the Buti brothers faced 51 federal counts each of conspiracy, fraud, and money laundering in their handling of Fashion Cafe's finances.
American Girl Cafe
393156Is this a weird concept?
- The Concept: Located in select American Girl Place retail locations, American Girl Cafe offers brunch, lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner. It's billed as doll-friendly dining. The eatery was designed as a way to make a trip to an American Girl store an even more memorable outing.
- The Opening: The first American Girl Cafe opened at the Chicago, IL, store in 1998.
- The Decor: The eateries in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago are larger, somewhat frilly affairs, while other locations are known as bistros and are significantly smaller. There are special seats for diners' dolls to join them at the table.
- The Merchandise: Only located within American Girl Place retailers, it's all about the AG merchandise at this establishment. You can usually take your doll to eat with you, or bring her to the salon or on a shopping spree. In fact, upon entering, diners are asked, "Did you bring a girl or do you need to borrow one?"
- Its Status Today: There are 13 American Girl Cafes or bistros in operation as of 2019.
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- The Concept: Space travel was the focus of Mars 2112. With a size of 33,000 feet, it was the largest theme restaurant upon opening in 1998. Owner Paschal M. Phelan said Mars 2112 was a "fusion of fun and good food and fantasy."
- The Opening: The New York City location opened in Times Square in November 1998. In 2000, a second location opened in a mall in Schaumburg, IL.
- The Decor: Diners ate amongst alien and spaceship decor.
- The Merchandise: Of course there was merchandise - mostly apparel and toys with a space travel or alien theme.
- Its Status Today: In 2011, after the New York location famously refused to let Shaquille O'Neal in because he wasn't dressed properly, there was no going back. The Times Square site closed in 2012, a few months after the Illinois site shuttered.
Dive!Photo: Jason Kirk/Staff / Hulton Archive/Getty Images
236141Is this a weird concept?
- The Concept: Dive! was a rare misstep from director Steven Spielberg. Built like a giant yellow submarine and hosting a nautical theme, diners were given the illusion of eating deep under the sea. According to the restaurant's advertising, patrons were invited to: "Dive! into a fleet of gourmet submarine sandwiches. SUBstantial salads, fresh pastas, wood oven-roasted entrees, and mouth-watering desserts. Enjoy SUBlime food in a playful SUBmerged environment, with bubbling porthole windows, gauges, an underwater video voyage, and working periscope with panoramic city views." It was all Spielberg's idea, inspired by his love of the sea and underwater exploration. He and producing partner Jeffrey Katzenberg devised the plan for Dive! in 1993.
- The Opening: The restaurant's first location, in the Century City neighborhood of Los Angeles, opened in 1994. A Las Vegas Dive! opened in 1995.
- The Decor: Both restaurant sites were bedecked in nautical finery. Every 45 minutes, there was a 30-second "submerging" of the submarine-shaped eatery. The portholes bubbled over, lights flashed, and submarine moans and groans filled the dining room.
- The Merchandise: Dive!-branded merchandise was only about 15 percent of the LA location's sales, but it was 40 percent of the Las Vegas site's gross.
- Its Status Today: The steady souvenir revenue stream kept the Las Vegas location open until the early 2000s, a few years after the 1999 closure of the original LA site.