November 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions Built to Spec November 1998 Current Issue
November 1998
Chain Gang

Pick a theme, any theme...Chances are, there's a restaurant tailor-made for your group


Your attendees have done the "Taste of (fill in the city)" party from Boston to Seattle. They've donned silly costumes, rocked around the clock and done the limbo at countless events. And you're running out of ideas for feeding and entertaining the group in a novel way. Theme restaurant chains may be the solution.

It seems there's a chain for every modern interest (or there will be one soon): music, movies, the environment, models, sports and more. And the beauty of these venues is the theme work is done for you. They're already decorated, the food and drinks have cutesy names, even the music and/or entertainment fits the central theme.

Another advantage: These places are found in popular meeting and convention cities (our pick for theme restaurant heaven: Orlando). Although restaurant analysts say the boom - which ran from 1992 to 1997 - is over for theme chains, most we've profiled have plans to open new locations in the near future.Interestingly, there's something about theme restaurants that draws out-of-towners. "While they don't do strong repeat business with locals, they have a great initial appeal for first-time visitors like meeting and convention attendees," says Michael Fineman, restaurant analyst for Raymond James Financial, Inc., a St. Petersburg, Fla.-based investment firm. Subsequently, these chains are eager to host group events. Several - including House of Blues, Hard Rock Cafe, Fashion Cafe and Motown Cafe - even have event specialists on staff to coordinate private parties. Following are highlights on some of the most prominent theme restaurant chains.

Corporate offices: Burbank, Calif.
Number of properties: One
Location/capacity: Baltimore (750)
Expansion plans: Properties in Chicago and New York City are set to open next summer.
(818) 526-4400
Fax: (818) 526-4402
No Web site

A joint venture between Disney Regional Entertainment and ESPN, this chain is the baby of the bunch: It launched its first property in July. The football-field-size venue features interactive electronic games, where guests can shoot hoops or hit home runs. Sports trivia games can be played on touch-screen computers. Fans can also watch the live sporting event of their choice on one of the 200-plus monitors in the facility. Menu items are a cut or two above your typical ballpark offerings: salads, pizzas, sandwiches and even full entr}es.

Corporate offices: New York City
Number of properties: One in the U.S.; four outside
Location/capacity: New York City, Mexico City, London, Manila and Jakarta; each accommodates 400.
Expansion plans: A Dubai property was set to open last month. The chain is eyeing other international destinations.
(212) 765-3131
Fax: (212) 397-1039

You'd expect that a themed restaurant chain that's the brainchild (or should we say inspiration) of three supermodels - Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer and Elle McPherson - would offer little more than celery sticks and designer water. Not so -Êthe edible offerings promise to be tasty and calorie-laden. (Trivia note: The most fattening entr}e you'll find is Naomi's Fish and Chips.)

The real novelty at a Fashion Cafe is the catwalk. Every day, models parade through the crowd in live fashion shows (which can be staged for private group events). When the live action isn't going on, fashion videos are shown on the properties' wide screens. The restaurants also feature model memorabilia and fashion accessory displays. Yet those who want to rub elbows with models' bony joints may be disappointed. "Although we have links with modeling agencies, we're really not a model hangout," says James Chapman, operations manager for the New York property.

Corporate offices: Orlando
Number of properties: 96
Location/capacity: 36 in the U.S., 60 outside. Most accommodate 350.
Expansion plans: Set to open by year-end in Denver; Guadalajara, Mexico; Kuwait; Amsterdam, the Netherlands; Cairo, Egypt; Rome; and Lima, Peru. Hard Rock has formed a joint venture with the National Basketball Association to develop an NBA-themed restaurant chain. The first is set to open next year in Orlando.
(407) 351-6000
Fax: (407) 363-3559

This is where the themed-restaurant- as-we-know-it concept began - the chain was launched with the opening of the London Hard Rock Cafe in 1971. At last count, the chain's extensive collection of rock star memorabilia was 49,000 pieces strong, including former possessions of some of rock's late greats: Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and John Lennon.

The atmosphere is pulsating: The sound system plays nonstop rock (no Celine Dion here), and music videos play on video screens. Food here is also meant to appeal to rockers: burgers, nachos, ribs and sandwiches. All venues accommodate private group events.

Corporate offices: New York City
Number of properties: Two
Location/capacity: New York City (1,000); Las Vegas (3,000)
Expansion plans: None at present
(212) 399-6000
Fax: (212) 399-3263

Welcome to hog heaven of the motorcycle variety. These restaurants-cum-memorabilia emporiums feature bikes, leather jackets, logos and other Harley paraphernalia and accessories.

The music: classic rock ("Born to Be Wild" is popular on the sound system). You won't hear syrupy, "lite" ballads in these clubs. Upscale American road food, featuring burgers and sandwiches, best describes the menu.

Corporate offices: West Hollywood, Calif.
Number of properties: Six
Location/capacity: Cambridge, Mass. (2,200); New Orleans (2,200); Los Angeles (1,200); Chicago (2,200); Myrtle Beach, S.C. (2,200); and Orlando (2,200)
Expansion plans: A Las Vegas property is set to open in March.
(213) 848-5105
Fax: (213) 650-1943

Founded by those original Blues Brothers - Dan Aykroyd and the late John Belushi - this chain's focus is on live entertainment, showcasing blues performers from up-and-comers to superstars. The chain will tap into its roster of performers or its house bands to provide music for private events.

Despite its name, the chain's decor doesn't fixate on the color blue; the six properties showcase a large collection of African-American folk art. And the eats are an eclectic mix of international dishes, with a strong offering of Louisiana specialties, such as po' boys and jambalaya. Another attraction at HOB: Sunday Gospel Brunch.

Corporate offices: Dallas
Number of properties: Seven
Location/capacity: Six in the U.S.: Buena Park, Calif. (1,122); Kissimmee, Fla. (1,125); Schaumburg, Ill. (1,400); Lyndhurst, N.J. (1,300); Myrtle Beach, S.C. (1,325); and Dallas (1,000). One in Canada: Toronto (1,350)
Expansion plans: None at press time
(800) 899-6600
Fax: (214) 748-7025

If tunic-clad, Fabio- coiffured men on horseback appeal to your attendees, then this is the place for your event. And if the group's not big on modern table etiquette, all the better (meals are eaten without the benefit of utensils).

More dinner theater than theme party, events at Medieval Times center around an Ivanhoe-type jousting tournament featuring the aforementioned medieval studs and their horses. At all seven properties, these are staged in a huge, indoor arena. Guests are seated in different-colored sections around the arena; their knight, for whom they're encouraged to cheer, wears the same color. All the while, rib-sticking medieval food and grog are served to attendees by costumed wenches.

Corporate offices:New York City
Number of properties: Two
Location/capacity: Las Vegas (700); New York City (340)
Expansion plans: An Orlando property is expected in 1999. The company plans to announce new openings in the next few years.
(212) 489-0097
Fax: (212) 489-0191
No Web site

Motown Cafe is poised to go big-time. According to a spokesperson, the chain - which was launched in 1995 - is looking to open restaurant locations all over the United States and Europe in the relatively near future.

Like House of Blues and Hard Rock, music rules here. Memorabilia from some of the record firm's brightest stars - Diana Ross, Gladys Knight, The Temptations - are on display. Classic Motown tunes are either spun by a deejay in the old-fashioned radio tower or performed by the Motown Cafe Moments, a cast of entertainers who perform some of the record label's greatest hits dressed up as the original performers.

Menu items are shamelessly named for the chain's stars: The Commodores' cobb salad, Smokey's Ribs and more.

Corporate offices: Knoxville, Tenn.
Number of properties: Two
Location/capacity: Myrtle Beach, S.C.; Nashville, Tenn.; each can host 300.
Expansion plans: A third property is scheduled to open next month in Orlando; in 1999 a fourth property is set to open in Sevierville, Tenn.
(423) 470-2233
Fax: (423) 531-3377
No Web site

With the 1997 opening of the first NASCAR cafe, motorsports fans got their own themed restaurant. The experience simulates an actual auto race: Guests can sit in the grandstands on both sides of the facility or mill in the "pit row" in the center of the main room. The decor includes real stock cars suspended from the ceiling, oil drums, drivers' helmets and, of course, racing memorabilia and car exhibits. Naturally, racing videos are displayed on wide screens throughout the place. The menu dishes are tied into the NASCAR theme, with names like Bill France Pork Chops, Chocolate Fudge Tire and Banana Split the Field.

Corporate offices: Orlando
Number of properties: 10
Location/capacity: Eight in the U.S.: New York City; Atlanta; Atlantic City, N.J.; Las Vegas; Miami; Myrtle Beach, S.C.; Orlando; Honolulu. Two outside: Melbourne, Australia; and Cancun, Mexico. Most accommodate 1,500.
Expansion plans: On hold, according to a spokesperson
(407) 363-7827
Fax: (407) 352-1792
No Web site

This jock-themed chain, owned by the Planet Hollywood folks, also banks on the star power of its celebrity backers - sports stars Andre Agassi, Wayne Gretzky, Ken Griffey Jr., Joe Montana, Shaquille O'Neal, Monica Seles and Tiger Woods.

The venue has mezzanine skybox booths, a center court arena-size scoreboard and booths shaped like huge baseball mitts. Videos featuring great moments in sports history are played on wide screens. Memorabilia and equipment belonging to athletes/backers are also on display.

The menu pays tribute to ballpark cuisine: burgers, Buffalo-style chicken wings, along with a few dishes named for the celebs (Andre's Ace Pomodoro, Monica's Topspin Caesar Salad).

Corporate offices: Orlando
Number of properties: 62
Location/capacity: 32 in the U.S.; 30 outside. Most accommodate 300.
Expansion plans: On hold, according to a spokesperson
(407) 363-7827
Fax: (407) 352-1792

This chain is better known for its star-studded grand openings featuring its five celebrity principles - Whoopi Goldberg, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sly Stallone, Bruce Willis and Demi Moore (although probably not the latter two at the same opening nowadays, given their very public split) - than for its menu and memorabilia. But that won't help you much when planning a private event. According to a spokesperson, they'll go as far as forwarding invitations to celebs for private group events at the chain, but "there's no guarantee they'll show up."

Corporate offices: Orlando
Number of properties: One
Location/capacity: Orlando (425)
Expansion plans: Twelve more are scheduled to open in the U.S. in the next few years.
(407) 425-6826
Fax: (407) 843-2549
No Web site

Players is like a mini-NFL Hall of Fame: The memorabilia of more than 5,000 of the league's players is on display. But it's not just their helmets, jerseys and trophies - peewee football and wedding photos from the players' personal albums are mixed in.

This establishment is a bit more upscale than many of the other themed chains. The menu items - served in portions generous enough to satisfy a linebacker - include wasabi-crusted salmon and filet mignon. A bonus for groups: The billboard on the facade of the restaurant displays the name of the "team" (in this case, the company or association that's hosting the event).

Corporate offices: Hopkins, Minn.
Number of properties: 22
Location/capacity: 18 in the U.S.; four outside. Most accommodate 380.
Expansion plans: Eight domestic, four international sites are in the works.
(612) 945-5400
Fax: (612) 945-5492

Ever since Sting and other celebrities made rainforests the cause du jour, items such as candy and beauty products have been themed on these tropical outposts. Why not a restaurant chain? These tropical-themed eateries feature huge aquariums filled with rainbow-hued fish, live parrots and cockatoos, as well as vines, trees and plants. The chain's developers have shied away from big-city locales in favor of malls near metropolises.

Menu items include Mogambo Shrimp and Monkey Business Coconut Bread Pudding.

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