Restaurants; Variations on a theme

Theme eateries are ditching burgers and ribs for an appetising new image, as Nikki Spencer reports

Theme restaurants have had a bit of a bad run in the West End recently, with a new slimline Fashion Cafe being placed in the hands of an administrator and talk of Planet Hollywood not doing so well. But that doesn't seem to be stopping more and more of what are groaningly known in the business as "entertainment" places opening up, particularly on the outskirts of the capital and in other UK cities.

Second branches of both the sports bar, Babe Ruth's, and the Capital Radio Cafe open later this month at the new 02 (a complex of 12 restaurants, a multiplex cinema, health club and supermarket on the Finchley Road), whilst in Southampton another Radio Cafe has just opened and a second UK branch of the Rainforest Cafe has opened at Manchester.'s Trafford Centre.

What we're seeing now, according to a spokeswoman for the Rainforest Cafe, is the next generation of themed restaurants. "In the past," she says "it was a more a case of static displays like memorabilia on the walls and the food wasn't incredibly important. But now people want to be entertained and the food has to be good too."

The Rainforest Cafes don't just have waiters and waitresses but staff with such creative titles as Safari Guides, Curators and Navigators. Special effects include rain showers, mists and even thunder and lightning.

In north London, at the new Babe Ruth's, they will have an even larger one-on-one basketball court than at their first restaurant in Wapping plus interactive games, but they will also be making a feature of their kitchens, which will be open and in the centre of the restaurant.

"The food is the most important thing to us," says operations manager Keith Feldmar, who says it will be a million miles away from the burgers, ribs and chicken of many such venues.

A place which is going even further down this route is the UK's first sports bar Shoeless Joe's. Their massive new bar/restaurant and entertainment complex will have as executive head chef John Burton-Race from Michelin two-starred restaurant L'Ortolan and head chef Robin Zavou, formerly of Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons - not places you'd ever have associated with themed restaurants of old.

"We are broadening the appeal from a sports-themed venue to a more multi- purpose venue," says chief executive Adam Duthie. "You've got to give people more reasons to come through the door."

Shoeless Joe's, Temple Place, Embankment, WC2 (0870 840401) Opens 30 Nov; also 555 Kings Rd, SW6 (0171-384 2333)

THE DREAM THEME - CONCEPT RESTAURANTS

Babe Ruth's

O2, 255 Finchley Rd, NW3 (0171-372 3500)

Babe Ruth's aim is to cross the line between themed and "serious" restaurants. "The superb design, state-of-the-art games and technology promise to make interaction with the world's great sporting events a far more palatable experience," promises general manager Daniel Hardcastle. Also at 172-176, The Highway, London E1 (0171-481 8181)

Belgo

The Old Granary, Queen Charlotte St, Bristol (0117 905800), opens Wed

Not a themed restaurant in the usual sense, but other UK cities are starting to get into the Belgian habitat.

Capital Radio Cafe

O2, 255 Finchley Rd, (0171-455 9685) Also at Leics Sq, London WC2 (0171- 484 8888)

One place where burgers, steaks and sandwiches will still feature whilst monitors, DJs and a stage will bring you the latest music videos, live celebrity interviews as well as music events and new bands.

Radio Cafe (left)

West Quay Retail Park, Harbour Parade, Southampton (01703 711217)

A joint venture between Capital Radio Restaurants and Capital's Southampton based radio station Power FM - the menu is a similar mix of DJ's and live acts served with American-style food and drink.

The Rainforest Cafe

1 The Orient, The Trafford Centre, Manchester M17 (0161-747 1122); also at 20 Shaftesbury Ave, London W1 (0171-434 3111)

Where else can you get Jungle Safari Soup and converse with a talking tree?

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