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Theme puke

Yum.
Jon Lagow

It's hard to pinpoint the birth of the first chain theme or "eatertainment" restaurant. Was it Chuck E. Cheese or T.G.I. Friday's? Maybe it was Bennigan's. But this would only be possible if ferns and old signs could be considered objects of compelling amusement. No, it was Hard Rock Café, a place to grind the jaws on a burlap burger with a weed dangling out of it under a guitar that Ronnie Montrose (remember him?) allegedly drooled over before it was buffed up, autographed, and mounted on the wall.

Whatever the seminal eatertainment moment was, the seed got out of the bag and mutated, spreading over the '90s like an epidemic of new law-school graduates: Planet Hollywood, Fashion Café, Rain Forest Café, All Star Café, Harley-Davidson Café, Elvis Presley's Memphis Café, Baywatch Café, and World Championship Wrestling Nitro Grill. What next in this market swamped by aging baby boomers? Bladder Control Bistro?

Then came the eatertainment shakeout. Planet Hollywood is quaking in Chapter 11. Fashion Café got a fatal run. Rain Forest Café faced clear-cutting by Wall Street. Dive!, the underwater/submarine theme restaurant devised by Hollywood moguls Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg with Chicago-based Levy Restaurants, scuttled its L.A. flagship after once boasting that as many as a dozen of the submersible eateries would surface across the country. Now all that's left of this theme restaurant (a licensed piece of the three-unit fleet was sunk earlier in Barcelona) is a $15 million Las Vegas installation. There's delicious irony in there somewhere, that of a lone eatertainment submarine surviving in the desert. But I'm too tired to unravel it.

I'm tired because I just got back from Jekyll & Hyde Club, a theme restaurant to end all theme restaurants. Literally. Jekyll & Hyde Club is a "restaurant and social club for eccentric explorers and mad scientists...reminiscent of a quirky 1930s English explorers club." But mostly, it's death and the macabre dressed in polymers, microchips, and badly feigned cockney accents.

Launched in 1995 in Manhattan by a certain D.R. Finley, Jekyll & Hyde has since been bought out by a bunch of Wall Street suits who have renamed the company Eerie World Entertainment, L.L.C. They relocated the company from Manhattan to the metroplex and have set their sights on national expansion. The first offshoot erupted in downtown Chicago. The second in Grapevine Mills, a kind of Dallas eatertainment ghetto. "People are more and more looking for package deals in everything they do," says Eerie President and Chief Operating Officer Tim Gavigan, a former executive with Rainforest Café. Gavigan is bullish on his clubs' success, despite the pummeling that eatertainment venues have taken on Wall Street. He says malls are evolving into one-stop living centers, places where you can shop, play, eat, and take in a movie.

But Gavigan says Jekyll & Hyde will realize success with a simple formula: high-quality service and food.

What kind of food? The same boilerplate pizza, pasta, sandwiches, and grilled chicken and salmon plopped in every other eatertainment venue, albeit with a twist. What kind of twists?

"We do boneless buffalo wings, and we have celery and chopped carrot in blue cheese mixed [the wing dip], versus just carrots," Gavigan explains. "There's a lot of things that are just a little bit different."

One of these twisted variations is crispy pesto-fried calamari ($6.95) with sun-dried tomato aioli, the twisted elements being the pesto and the sun-dried tomato, I guess. But it was the same chalky, mushy tangle of tentacles found in most every other dubiously executed New American menu, though this was plopped in pink tartar sauce and a green oil slick instead of a dip in normal colors.

Isn't this the same forgettable grub found in every other theme feeder? "I don't think so. I disagree with you," Gavigan counters. "What other foods are you going to put on a menu?" How about bangers and fish and chips and roast beef and Guinness stew? At least that would be thematically correct, and would set this carnival apart from the rest of the eatertainment industry that expends valuable creative talent trying to come up with thematically relevant names for a pile of chicken wings.

Instead, Jekyll & Hyde relies on the same sort of gimmicks, albeit on steroids. Allegedly created with the help of set, lighting, and costume designers from Broadway and Hollywood, the roughly $7 million Grapevine Jekyll & Hyde incorporates the latest advances in sophisticated animatronics. Which, loosely translated, means that a wall-mounted "Southern belle" rhino noggin named Magnolia and a werewolf head named Tobias gesture, twitch, blink, and howl at various guests -- all captured through closed-circuit television monitors, so that diners in the selected room can get in on the "fun."

Of which there is a lot here, if your idea of fun is mingling amongst a crowd of animated wax-museum refugees doing strenuously scripted little skits with actors while digesting fried onions that taste like Frankenstein's head was melted into the batter.

 

Actors -- did I say actors? You bet. Jekyll & Hyde club is a virtual hive of thespian activity. One of them escorts you to the entry portal upon arrival, where a screen flashes a skeleton creature who explains that you have to pass a test before you can enter the club -- the test being that the ceiling in this portal grows spikes and is lowered to measure your reaction. The actors, who could be anything from a white-coated, stethoscope-brandishing guy named Dr. Hackinoff, to a frilly maid named Tippy Toppingsworth, squat and fearfully jibber in faux cockney as the roof falls. The ceiling, of course, never descends below NBA eye-level, as that would be bad for sales, but it sure jolts the tykes. One kid yelped to his dad after passing through the fireplace trap door into the dining room that he was now too scared too eat. Maybe that dropping roof really does affect sales. Anyway, the poor whelp should have waited. The menu would have had the same effect.

No, that's not entirely fair. The club special meatloaf ($12.95) was better than edible, though it was slathered in a "roasted garlic gravy" that tasted like the tepid fluid used to hide the mystery meat in the school lunch program. The horseradish mashed potatoes were good too, fluffy and moist and all that, though there was barely a blip of horseradish. But then there were these baby carrots that resembled little root stubs -- mushed, waterlogged, and split.

Fried Cajun chicken and sausage spring rolls ($7.50) were enough to frighten you in the way that toothpicked cocktail weenies would if you had the temerity to put them in your mouth without the benefit of two double martinis. Lumbering and flowing with melted cheese (I think), these rolls were planted on a pile of crisp cabbage and carrot shreds washed with a little rice vinegar to give it that Asian twist.

Jekyll & Hyde is divided into a series of distinct dining rooms, including an observatory with a rubber man in a wheelchair peering into a telescope, an artifact room, and a mausoleum with a series of glass-topped crypts mounted on the wall with rubber bodies in them. Above each crypt is a red and a green light bulb, signaling God knows what, though I found myself wishing green meant that the corpses would twitch, snarl, and press their lips to the glass. All of these rooms are grouped around a "central operating theater" where a golden Zeus with red eyes spins, roars, and grumbles like a demon-possessed lawn ornament. A pair of skeletons mounted on the wall play organ and fiddle, and a talking Sphinx argues with the actors. There's also a little skit in which Dr. Jekyll, or Dr. Sawyer Bones, or Dr. Hackinoff, or whatever thespian isn't dropping the ceiling on somebody's head, reanimates a Frankenstein-like monster during a thunderstorm. "Kill, must kill. I must kill everyone," says the rubber ghoul on an adjustable slab.

This is not the kind of thing you want to hear while biting into a piece of grilled shrimp that has the rippled, rubbery texture rendered from undercooking. But that's how the three shrimp were in the mixed grill ($14.95), little sea creatures that shared space with a dried-out chicken breast and limp, tepid Cajun sausage on a swirl of dirty rice.

Char-crusted black Angus sirloin ($16.95), swimming in a sweetish dark sauce, was stringy and chewy. Chili-corn mashed potatoes were like glue, and upon these mounds was an odd clutter of black beans, corn, peppers, and stalks of sour, ropy asparagus.

The best item we sampled was the grilled chicken breast sandwich ($8.95) with Brie cheese and maple mustard sauce, which was difficult to find on the dried-out bun. Warm caramel apple crisp ($5.50) was mushy and pasty, and the coffee tasted like I imagine Dr. Hackinoff's breath must smell.

But really, who cares about the food? It's the experience that counts in this alluring gadget heaven. One woman, who appeared to be the parent of a teenage girl celebrating a birthday amongst this havoc, was running around the restaurant in a flurry, busily videotaping all the talking wall mountings and the little skits. Tobias, that wall-mounted wolf head, was ribbing the partiers, howling, cajoling, and trying to get them to dance.

It's kind of interesting to contemplate the sophisticated interaction accomplished with two-way cameras, microphones, and mechanized robots. Gavigan says a command center with improv actors monitoring television screens and working puppets drives the whole effect. The interplay takes a tremendous amount of training, he stresses, to make sure the humor is fresh, aboveboard, and not sarcastic.

 

It's all done through two side-by-side control booths. "It looks like NASA," says Gavigan. It sort of makes you feel like a pestered laboratory rat being fed processed food and processed sensory experiences to see which combination deflates your wallet the fastest.


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