Burning Question
Jon Logow

Burning Question

You have to travel to see a Babe Ruth-autographed baseball.

Most people fly to Syracuse, New York, rent a car, drive southeast for an hour or so, and buy a ticket to the baseball hall of fame. Others just pop in for lunch at Balls Hamburgers on Northwest Highway.

Yep. They have a Babe Ruth baseball, a Mickey Mantle baseball, even--for some inexplicable reason--a Dallas Mavericks baseball (try auctioning that online). Down the road a bit, Joe's Crab Shack at Stemmons and Northwest Highway dedicates an entire wall to Elvis: Elvis records, Elvis pictures, Elvis movie posters, and maybe just a bit of velvet. Dick's Last Resort decorates with bras. Chili's restaurants put up pretty much the same decorations at every location nationwide. Applebee's adds local flavor. The Flying Saucer in Addison--now, this requires some imagination--hangs saucers on the wall.

Besides feeding a national eBay frenzy and supporting the memorabilia market, why do restaurants put junk on their walls?

"It sets a mood," says Dawn Pratt, manager of Balls...excuse me, Balls manager. "More important, memorabilia starts conversations." It's really that simple. Restaurants spend tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars just to create ambience. Restaurant owners, managers, and consultants travel to auctions, search antique dealerships, or defer to the expertise of the corporate office (the case at Joe's Crab Shack).

And it works. "I have customers who will stand up, look around, and point at stuff on the walls," says Trey Harris, manager of Joe's Crab Shack's Stemmons location. Pratt's customers even donate school pennants, banners, jerseys, and other items. "People have never seen anything like it," says John Fowler, Flying Saucer general manager, of his plate-festooned walls. Decorators actually divided the plates into categories--commemorative plates, old movie plates, athletes, dogs, etc. "Most people don't look that closely," he admitted, "but it adds to the je ne sais quoi." That's French.

Theme restaurants take many forms, from the cleansed and socially acceptable adornments at national chains to the risqué stuff at Dick's to sports memorabilia and traffic signs and everything in between. Few patrons complain. "I love places with junk on the walls," says diner Tom Hudgins. "I love that atmosphere and look. It's like a joint." He means the 1950s definition.

But the plate collection at Flying Saucer may serve a more important purpose. "They give you a focal point when you're drunk," says Jennifer Moody.


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