Ask people to name a themed restaurant and their first answers might be “Medieval Times” or “Hard Rock Cafe”. Themes in restaurants are a way of ensuring an experience to remember — it’s a place that really has a vision, a concept and a look that will make the diner feel that it’s a night worth talking about. That’s worth a premium, don’t you think? It's why themed restaurants can often get away with charging just a little more, and it might even make sense to have some merchandising.
Theme Restaurants 101
When there’s a central concept or a tangible idea that serves as the driving force behind the restaurant, then that’s likely a theme. When there’s a cultural, historical, conceptual or environmental idea that is identifiable not just through the space but also in the menu, the food and all the marketing, then it’s a themed restaurant.
Take Mexican restaurants, for example. A Mexican restaurant using some Mexican flavor is par for the course, and that’s not really a theme as much as it’s about being authentic. However, say it’s a place that has hardcore Dia de los Muertos decor — full-on Day of the Dead decor with in-depth, whole-wall murals, extravagant homage to skull art installations and all sorts of vibrantly colored Latin drama. Even in Mexico, that sort of place would be considered a bit over the top regarding authenticity.
Why Do a Theme?
The motivation behind a theme tends to be about driving an audience who’s looking for a notable experience rather than just a meal. The notion is that sometimes the ambiance is as important as the food. Of course, that’s a misnomer because the food isn’t some minor character; it’s a starring role, and it needs to be a winner.
However, if an establishment does have great food and does represent the central theme well, then the theme could be what elevates the space from just another restaurant or bar and puts it into the “places to go” column for any city.
Take the Ithaa Undersea Restaurant in the Maldives, considered to be one of the most beautiful restaurants in the world. Put that meal in any other place, and it’s maybe $150 for a seven-course meal, but put it nearly 20 feet under the sea in a glass dome that seats just 16 diners, and suddenly it’s $500 per head for dinner and the memory of a lifetime. That’s an extreme and rare theme, but it’s an example of how much location or concept can influence what a diner might be willing to spend for an experience.
Theme Benefits to Consider
Some themes are what you might call “evergreen” because they’re always in season. That’s why something like the Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament experience is still going strong with 10 locations after nearly four decades. The expense in starting up a concept like Medieval Times is considerable because the space required is so great, but they also have a fixed menu that pretty much never varies and is also evergreen — always in season and affordable not just for the diner but for the franchise. An ear of corn, chicken and potatoes are affordable, popular and easy to source, so what’s not to love?
Theme restaurants will frequently have menus that serve the idea rather than the season and can allow for some budget-friendly constants in sourcing supplies. Having a theme can also be budget friendly on the marketing side if it creates ongoing buzz and conversation.
Some themes are so interesting that they’re a draw and a must-see experience for both tourists and locals, and it’s enough to keep them churning the paying clients in and out. In Budapest, for instance, just off the Danube is a highly popular bar called the For Sale Pub, decorated with for-sale ads and receipts of all kinds hanging off the walls. You can’t see a single bit of drywall, and it’s a must-visit tourist spot but also offers specials to lure locals. Another example is Ninja, a destination restaurant in both Tokyo and New York, where ninjas are servers, and you dine in a subterranean, Japanese-village-designed space.
Downsides of Themes
The trouble with a theme, whether you’re talking a tiki room bar or it’s something outsized like the Ithaa Undersea experience, is that the diner really needs to be in it for the experience as well as the food. If it’s over the top and a full-on experience, then that can be a deal breaker for locals after a long Wednesday at work, and there will need to be either a huge population base or a steady flow of tourists and visitors. For locals, a themed restaurant is often a destination experience and something akin to doing the paddle boats at the park. It’s a great time, and you’ll tell your friends about it, but it may not be something you’re inspired to do more than once a year if that.
Another downside can be that the theme may make it hard to persuade diners that the food is worthy. With a kitsch-forward interior, it can be hard to take an establishment seriously no matter how pure the kitchen’s intentions may be. Also, because of the theme and the premium price, a disappointing meal can make diners even more venomous in their assessments, like the legendary New York critic Frank Bruni giving Ninja zero stars for being pretentiously overpriced and campy.
Beyond the camp factor being potentially off-putting for some diners, the often-higher prices can make it difficult for theme restaurants to sustain their livelihood because that premium price is justified for those looking for the experience, but regular diners who have had that experience won’t be keen to pay up once again.
“At Least Once” Syndrome = Once
Theme restaurants can doom themselves to a self-fulfilling prophecy when creating the “something everyone has to experience at least once” scenario of their theme. Look up reviews of something like Medieval Times and you’ll see reviews like, “I’ve never been before, and I’m so glad I went!” or even things like, “Wow, I haven’t been here since I was in third grade, but I had a blast, and my kid loved it too.”
If a restaurant is so kitschy and theme-laden that people can go, have the experience and then not be inspired to try it again for 25 years just because it’s so niche, well, it’s not exactly primed for repeat business, is it? Studies suggest that attracting new clientele is five to 25 times more expensive than wooing repeat customers, and that’s a real roadblock for themes. Why go again when you’ve already had your “at least once” in your lifetime?
The struggle for theme restaurants, then, is in creating that holy trinity of having an experience to which people want to return on a regular basis, with dependably great food that falls in a justifiable price point. It doesn’t happen often, but every now and then, a theme hits pure gold, like the Hard Rock Cafe and its lionizing of rock and roll history and that exportable Americana theme that’s been a hit in 75 countries around the world.