Restaurant Reviews

Theme puke

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.