Is There Anything Fancier Than a Themed Restaurant?

And the 90s restaurant that weighed each child to price their kid's meal.

Is There Anything Fancier Than a Themed Restaurant?
Photo by Kevin Sarduy / Unsplash

I am slowly weaning myself off Twitter. But I am really going to miss it! And this tweet is one example of why I am mourning the loss. The short bursts of thought on the app have brought so much into my life. Some big things. (Another story, another day.) Some little things. Like, I’d completely forgotten about Sizzler. But as soon as I saw this, I remembered. Sizzler.

Okay. Now. Sizzler.

We only got to go to Sizzler twice. The first time, I remember my parents trying to figure out if they could afford to do the steak or just the salad bar while we waited in line. I think one of them got a steak for them to split, while the other got the buffet. This, apparently, was a conversation a lot of people were having.

The buffet was supposed to be an add-on to the sizzling entrees. But it was a decent buffet, so lots of people skipped the more expensive entrees and treated the buffet like the whole meal instead. Sizzler profits tumbled. Then, in a very strange move, Sizzler made the buffet worse on purpose. They hoped a bad buffet would make people order entrees. But, of course, people just stopped coming to the restaurant.

The couple times we went to Sizzler, we were there for the kids eat for 99 cents promotion. That 99 cents got you a Just For Kids buffet. The food was served on a little yellow cart. It was my size and had food JUST FOR KIDS. It just felt so sophisticated. Excuse me, Parents, I know you want these chicken tenders but as you can see…they are just for kids.

Please feast your eyes on those child-size jello cubes THANK YOU VERY MUCH.

As fancy as that jello was, it simply couldn’t hold a kid cart candle to the fanciest restaurants of my youth - the themed chain restaurant.

What was the fancy restaurant from your childhood? 

I can think of several others from mine. A lot of them were theme chains that started in Orange County. Maybe it was my proximity to Disneyland, but a theme just seemed so elevated. A place with a theme was a place removed from the worries of the world. (And secretly, I still feel that way. I still love Disneyland. And I am still desperate to spend a few nights at The Madonna Inn.)

I’ve already written about Mimi’s Cafe, the (very, very Americanized) French cafe themed restaurant. I also loved the few times we went to Orange County-based Claim Jumper. It was a gold-rush themed restaurant. They were known for their large portions, including a huge dessert called The Motherlode. Because it’s a gold rush, get it? At one point, Claim Jumper was Cheesecake Factory’s biggest competitor. This 1995 review from the Los Angeles Times is pretty funny. I love a moat of gravy with my liver. 

As with most chains these days, Claim Jumper revolves around a theme. The Irvine restaurant is like a classy Gold Rush saloon--dark and clubby, with a vaulted ceiling and fin de siecle furniture. The snazzy new Long Beach location also evokes the mining town mystique, but it is bigger and more spacious than the Irvine branch. In Long Beach, I sat under a stuffed moose head, which was looking none too pleased about it. At the Irvine restaurant, I hunkered down in a comfy booth, a Tiffany lamp glowing nearby.

Among the lower-priced supper dishes are a hearty beef stew, a gluey chicken pot pie, fine grainy meatloaf and insipid turkey breast served in huge slabs on mountains of bland dressing. Often you suspect the real theme here isn’t the Gold Rush but the idea of quantity. Country-fried steak, turkey and liver all come with a veritable moat of mashed potatoes and gravy. Order a baked potato with one of the roasts and you’ll get one about a foot across, lathered with sour cream and butter and served with a fried tortilla boat filled with cheese sauce and crumbled bacon. - Los Angeles Times, 1995 

The review doesn’t mention the thing I remember most clearly. 

At the front of the restaurant there was a huge scale. As a kid, I imagined the scale was used for gold in the “olden days.” It wasn’t. But it was used at the start of each meal to weigh kids to determine how much their dinner would cost - 5 cents for every pound. Weighing a kid, in public, to decide how much their dinner is going to cost is, of course, a horrifying thing to do. 

I must have been young when we went to Claim Jumper because I remember thinking the weigh-in was a lark instead of a horror. I started worrying about my weight before I was ten. So, yeah. I must have been very young. And yes, this was the 90s. So suburban moms were weighing in at Weight Watchers to lose weight by day. And suburban kids were weighing in at Claim Jumpers to get charged for dinner by night. Thanks! I hate it!

I also highly recommend this very 1990s review of the first Claim Jumper in Colorado.

Another incredibly fancy restaurant from my youth: The Chicken Dinner Restaurant at Knott’s Berry Farm. If all you can eat buttermilk biscuits isn’t fancy, what is? (No truly, I am asking.)

There were so many others. Steven Spielberg’s Dive - I only got to eat there once. It was a sub sandwich restaurant with a submarine theme. Every thirty minutes, portholes in the wall filled with water to simulate a dive. The simulation was very loud, with lots of red lights. That felt very fancy. But it also made me very nervous. Then there was Planet Hollywood. Rainforest Cafe. Island’s. Ruby’s. Oh! And The Old Spaghetti Factory!

The Old Spaghetti Factory had a gosh darn trolley inside the restaurant. AND YOU COULD EAT IN THE TROLLEY. The sheer exhilaration of being five years old and getting seated inside that trolley on a Friday night. What luck! Daniel Boulud has never created anything that can compete with that feeling. (Please pass the butter noodles.)

I honestly kind of miss my childhood fake-fancy themed restaurants. At least there was a little whimsy, even if the mozzarella sticks were sometimes freezer-burned. It’s not like themes are gone. Many “real” fancy restaurants have a theme, it’s just always the same one - yawning luxury. Seems like a lot of missed opportunity. I wonder if anyone has thought about doing a Brambly Hedge themed restaurant. (Please, please, please someone open a Brambly Hedge restaurant.)

Okay, tell us about your fanciest kid restaurant. 

And, if you have kids or hang with kids, tell me what restaurants they think are fancy now. Honestly, we don’t take our kids to restaurants very often. So any place with real glasses and a waiter that takes your order WHILE YOU SIT DOWN pretty much blows their minds.