Make no mistake, this is the Theme Age. Robert Earl, co-founder of Planet Hollywood and king of the "eatertainment" industry, announced last week that he intends to create "the largest and most successful leisure company in the world". Planet Hollywood, he asserts, is poised to become a global empire to rival Disney. Meanwhile, the Naomi-, Elle- and Kate-blessed Fashion Cafe has launched its London branch. The 25-year-old Hard Rock Cafe has opened a hotel and casino in Las Vegas, is planning a record label, a foray into live music and has set up shop in Cape Town. In the last year London has seen the arrival of the Sports Cafe and Football Football and soon Marvel Mania will be opening in the Trocadero, based around Marvel comic characters such as Spiderman. Even Capital Radio is opening a restaurant on Shaftesbury Avenue. And if you are still in any doubt that themed restaurants have made it big, there is an entire journal devoted to the business - Theme Magazine.
Initially scoffed at by the restaurant business and media world, theme restaurants are now inducing hysteria. "The end of civilisation as we know it," wailed that arbiter of good taste, Jonathan Ross. Restaurant reviewers now utter the words "Planet Hollywood" with a sneer that normal people reserve for hard-core porn. But still the restaurants grow; like it or not, people want T-shirts that tell you they have been to the Hard Rock Cafe in New Orleans or Prague. They continue to think it's worth spending pounds 250 on a Hard Rock leather jacket.
And why not? Paul Day, editor of Theme Magazine dismisses the detractors: "It's pure snobbery. One writer actually maintained that a good restaurant shouldn't need design. That the food should speak for itself. Well, he obviously hasn't been to a Conran restaurant. It's like when people bemoan the demise of the traditional old cinema, saying that they are now characterless; what they forget is that, thanks to the new-style cinema, many more people are going to see films."
"The eating-out market has expanded," says Gary Davis, a director of Planet Hollywood. "We expose people to going out who wouldn't have eaten out at all a few years ago. It's not that we're taking away from old restaurants. It's a perfect time for us, with worldwide recognition and excitement over the glamour of the movie stars."
"People now want a multi-dimensional entertainment experience when they go out to eat," agrees Jim Burke, president of Hard Rock Europe. "They are looking for something new; we are keeping up."
Because themed restaurants have made the leap across conventional boundaries of good taste by playing the music too loud, designing restaurants to look like, say, a giant guitar and making the merchandise more memorable than the food, they can then take things further into the interactive future. Football Football has been open four months. Diners are greeted bythe roar of the crowd as they walk in through the tunnel, you can pick your favourite game to watch on screen, be wished happy birthday by your favourite player and, as the chain develops, play virtual reality games. Mike Trusson, marketing manager and a former Sheffield United player, says: "Football has a buzz right now. It cuts across class and country. The people who criticise normally haven't been."
Part of the hostility towards theme restaurants must surely be due to the money that someone else is making. Every time a new one opens that's another opportunity missed. Katrina Michel, European new business director of Ogilvy & Mather says: "It's a question of finding a concept with enough global relevance to carry it. Football is bigger in Brazil than it is here, so you can see it working. You wonder if in the end they will run out of new usable concepts. Someone ought to do Dating Dating, the first global singles bar or Restaurant Restaurant would be a good ironic twist.
"I think that they are a good thing. They make people more sociable. Rather than not knowing what the hell to say to someone when you go out, you go to the Sports Bar and start talking about Ian Botham in 1981."
Not all are successful. Right opposite what has now become the Fashion Cafe used to be the Glitter Bar, where, no doubt, one could enjoy Leader burgers. But Gary Glitter, it seems, was not a big enough phenomenon to carry a restaurant. For the successful themed restaurant needs a combination of celebrity endorsement, satisfactory food and hype to carry the place when the VIPs have gone home. If you need to advertise, your PR firm is not doing a good job. Planet Hollywood gets free newspaper advertising every time Arnie's in town and stops by.
At Football Football, "celebrity" footballers receive VIP gold cards when they visit. "We had the whole of the Blackburn team on Saturday," says Mike Trusson. The Hard Rock has waitresses who are full of celeb-spotting fervour which gets communicated to the punter who doesn't expect to see Sting, but does enjoy the thought that he might have used the same urinal. Jan Nichols clearly spends her working hours in perpetual excitement. "I've served Pamela Anderson and Tommy, Oasis, George Michael, The Eagles ... I'm lucky. Jack Nicholson was ace. He was just like he was in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. He said, 'Lady, how long will it take you to get me a milkshake and a cheeseburger?' all slow and drawn out. I love my job and I always visit the other restaurants when I go away. Luckily I've never ended up in a place where there isn't a Hard Rock."
Globalisation is the future. This is the problem and the power of the theme. The global strategies march forward in an ominous fashion bringing more Westernisation (and overwhelmingly Americanisation) of the planet. Football Football wants a branch in every football city here and abroad. Hard Rock has held back from becoming as common as McDonald's to keep itself special rather than to protect indigenous culture and restaurants. Planet Hollywood does concede to world culinary tastes - by putting a local dish on the menu. So it is inspiring to see a little local resistance. In St Petersburg's they have a joke that to preempt the invasion of US theme restaurants they will start their own - the St Petersburger.
KNOW YOUR PLANET FROM YOUR HARD ROCK
Celebrity Status: One of the quartet - Arnie, Sly, Bruce and Demi - always attend an opening which guarantees acres of newspaper space. Don't tend to get back all that often but frequent parties with C-list celebs keep up appearances.
Queue: Bad but regrettably not as bad as the Hard Rock Cafe.
Food: Uninspired but better than the takeaway street pizza slices that are the other staple of Piccadilly Circus
HARD ROCK CAFE
Celebrity Status: At 25 years old, this is the godfather of theme. Memorabilia collection started with Pete Townshend donating a guitar. Feeds bands backstage and other funky things for a good image. Not so cool was Veggie Burger launch with Linda McCartney.
Queue: More famous than the brand.
Food: The best of the bunch but very traditional.
THE FASHION CAFE
Anagram: 0 Fatties Chafen.
Celebrity Status: Some might say that wafer-thin models would put you off fast-food guzzling but at least it doesn't seem to give them spots. Not likely to catch the girls there in the near future.
Food: Not the number one asset, it has to be said.
Queue: The rope barriers were seen swinging lonely in the breeze recently.
Celebrity Status: Most of us try to avoid eating and drinking with footballers, however, there is much past and present hero potential if only on the television screen.
Food: Ominously billed as "international" - ie includes prawn cocktail and vegetable lasagna.
Queue: The touts aren't in big business.Reuse content