Samui Wining & Dining
Theme Extreme

Some places are really pushing the envelope of our theme-dining experience!


Theme ExtremePeople say that it all began back in the 1970s. This was when the first-ever Hard Rock Café opened in London. But it wasn’t for another 20 years that the idea of the theme-restaurant really became established. There was the Rainforest Café chain with their talking trees and simulated storms. And Planet Hollywood with its superstar glitterati endorsements. Plus a dozen others. By the mid ’90s, it seemed that everyone was jumping on the bandwagon of serving food with a fantasy flourish. At that time it was a good idea. But it had two serious flaws.


Firstly, the best thing you could say about any of the food was that it was … alright. The emphasis was on the showiness of the surroundings rather than on the quality of the fare. And, secondly, all these theme-restaurants depended entirely on the passing trade of tourists – the locals found them over-priced and far to gimmicky/silly/awful. (At its peak there were 140 outlets of Planet Hollywood. Since which time it has gone bankrupt twice and now has fewer than 20 branches worldwide.)


The 21st century has seen the slow death of the theme-restaurant. Except – it hasn’t! Something strange has happened; it’s resurged. But, in much the same way that movies, as each decade has passed, have become more graphic and more extreme, so has the new wave of theme-restaurants. It’s no longer enough to have fake waterfalls or motorbikes glued to the ceiling. Now the aim is to shock. Or, if not actually to cause you to rock back on your heels in nauseated alarm, then certainly to be so sensational that you’ll just have to tell/text/tweet all your friends.


Let’s start off with a splash, and jump right into the squishy end with the Marton restaurant chain in Taiwan. There are now 16 restaurants with the ineffable slogan – ‘Go pee pee or go poo poo’. Catchy, don’t you think? In 2006, just to press the point (in case not everybody had quite got it yet) they changed their name to Modern Toilet Restaurant. The iconography of these establishments is certainly consistent, with diners sitting on coloured ceramic WC’s, dishes and plates shaped like bedpans and urinals, tables made of bathtubs with glass covers and even the lighting made from converted basins and pedestals. The owner, Eric Wang, sums up this contemporary Asian dining knee-jerk by saying, “We not only sell food but also laughter. Customers think the more disgusting and exaggerated the restaurant is, the funnier the dining experience is.” And there was me thinking that dining was all about food. Moving rapidly on …


One (small) rung down the ladder of extremely-themed eateries is Nyotaimori. The sensual Japanese pastime of eating food off a woman’s body, previously the prerogative solely of Emperors, has been expanded to include the general public and also modified somewhat. In this Tokyo restaurant you’re presented with a life-size edible male or female body-model lying prone on your table. It’s all dough and marzipan but you’re invited to ‘operate’ on it (it ‘bleeds’ sauce when you cut into it) and discover tantalising morsels placed in the location of where you would expect the bodily organs to reside. The word ‘nyotaimori’ is Japanese for ‘cannibal’.


And before leaving Tokyo, still bouncing apprehensively on one foot, a quick hop to the Christon Café is a must. This is a themed parody of thinly-veiled ‘Christianity’ as it must appear to a Tokyoite. The décor is dark and gothic with lots of stained glass, icons and statues, supplemented with comic-book details, such as the odd coffin here and there, and lots of guttering altar candles and blood-red curtains. A sort of culinary Anne-Rice-meets-Gormenghast.


But if the gastronomic quirks of Japan seem somewhat OTT to your Western sensibilities, then take a lingering lunch at Beijing’s Pitch Black Restaurant. It’ll need to be lingering as everything is utterly and totally in the dark. You’re served by staff wearing night-vision goggles and the idea is that, because you can’t see it, your food will taste totally awesome, as all your other senses go into a panic state and you flood with endorphins and adrenalin, right? Cool. If you ever get to find your plate, that is.


Some might say that this is all a bit silly and, anyway, what’s it got to do with Thailand? Glad some asked that. Because, whilst you’re in Ratchaburi, go and get yourself some flesh bread. Not a misprint, because fine-arts graduate, Khun Kittiwat Unarrom, has made international ‘breadlines’ with his incredibly realistic sculptures of heads and body-parts created out of bread. But before you rush to commission a pre-sliced bust of your boss from Khun Kittiwat’s family’s bakery, these are not on general sale and can be seen only when he holds an exhibition.


To steer back onto the theme of Themes again, and remaining in Thailand, no Thai holiday can be complete without being able to say you’ve dined at Cabbages and Condoms in Bangkok. The food itself is to be recommended and it’s the only restaurant you’ll find where the waiters wear big plastic condoms on their heads, a complementary condom appears on your plate at the end and there’s a free vasectomy included at the clinic next door. Owned and run by former Minister of Health, Khun Mechai Viravaidya, it’s a serious enterprise with all profits going to the State Population and Community Development Association (PDA).


I could go on. There are nurses and wheelchairs at The Medical Restaurant, in Taipei, rockets, Kalashnikovs and live claymores everywhere at Bunz n Gunz, in Beirut (but who needs a restaurant), there’s the Graveyard Restaurant, in Ahmadabad, and then the Alcatraz Prison, in Tokyo, where you have to bang your tin mug on the bars to summon a waiter. I suppose it’s all good clean fun and you probably even get food included.


Am I getting old? As all this sort of stuff – with the exception of the philanthropic Cabbages and Condoms – seems just too gonzo for me. I’m just glad I’m here on Samui where restaurants look like eateries and the food comes on plates and not inside life-size model dinosaurs. But, be that as it may, it’s a big wide, cut-throat world out there. A theme’s a theme’s a theme’s a theme – but it ain’t no good if it’s not extreme!


Rob De Wet


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