Opinion: Marius Zürcher on theme restaurants

Theme restaurants can transport customers to another time, place, or even a fantasy world. But can these concepts prove to be timeless?

If you, like me, are for some reason closely following trends in the restaurant industry during the last few years, you might have noticed the careful, but steadily accelerating, comeback of something many thought, even hoped, was gone forever: theme restaurants.

Many observers may be surprised by this, given the hunger for authenticity among and the increasing sophistication of modern guests. It makes sense to me, however.

Theme restaurants are, after all, a form of escapism. We’re living in a complicated, turbulent time, and everyone’s looking for ways to disconnect and experience something unique. Theme restaurants tap into that need by giving customers a chance to step into carefully designed settings that transport them to another time, place, or even a fantasy world. By doing so, they offer an easily accessible escape from the everyday grind, letting people forget their usual worries for a while. While regular restaurants can also offer escapism, the sensory overload provided by theme restaurants makes it easier to drown out the noise of reality.

There’s nothing wrong with that if you ask me. “But what about the food?” some of you might ask, especially those of you old enough to remember being severely disappointed by the food and subsequently shocked by the price at the, say, Hard Rock Cafe (those weren’t really Gene Simmons’ sunglasses by the way), or your local cowboy-themed restaurant. While I understand your concerns, it appears that many of the new theme restaurants are not just about the experience, but also about the food. This too makes sense, given the previously mentioned sophistication of guests. 

The food is not the only worry, however. Theme restaurants, especially those centered around specific cultures or historical periods, could inadvertently perpetuate stereotypes or misconceptions. Similarly, some might argue that theme restaurants exploit cultural or historical elements for profit, potentially diluting their authenticity and significance. Both are valid points. In the end, it depends on the theme, on the character and skill of the one implementing the theme, and on the vigilance of guests.

Can a restaurant be focused?

Frequent readers of my columns might find this month’s article surprisingly enthusiastic so far, but not to worry, I also have an axe to grind when it comes to this topic. While I am all for theme restaurants that whisk you away to another time or place, as long as the food is good and the implementation is handled with true interest and care, I’m much more skeptical about theme restaurants centered around one ingredient, like, say, an avocado restaurant. It just doesn’t compute with my understanding of what a restaurant is supposed to be: a local institution, designed and envisioned to be around forever, if it is lucky enough.

Even a theme restaurant can be like that, provided it choses a theme that is (relatively) timeless. A restaurant themed around one ingredient on the other hands seems to be something meant to be inherently fleeting. Maybe that is just me though. Also, I do acknowledge that I would never say this about a little whole in the wall place that, for example, serves nothing but flatbread and hummus. So maybe I am being a little bit hypocritical. However, I do believe there is a difference between a restaurant built around one ingredient that is deeply rooted in a particular culture, and a theme restaurant built around whatever the newest superfood or rediscovered heirloom vegetable is.

Now, don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing inherently wrong with a restaurant (with or without theme) that is meant to burn quick but brightly. They should be the exception to the rule, however. The fact that there seem to be more and more exceptions leads to more volatility in an industry that could instead use more stability. They’re also not what I personally love about hospitality, but that’s a story for another time.

Marius Zürcher

About the author:

The co-owner & founder of Millennial & Gen Z marketing and employer branding agency 1520 in Apeldoorn, the Netherlands, Marius Zürcher was a participant at FCSI’s ‘Millennials’ focused roundtable at INTERGASTRA and a speaker at FCSI workshops about industry trends.

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