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Theme restaurants give diners a change of scenery
She's wearing white knee socks and black high-heeled Mary Janes, a ruffled headband, and a short petticoat-lined dress with puff sleeves, rounded collar and a patch-pocket apron, and she's here to pour your tea and serve cucumber finger sandwiches.
French maid not your thing? Go dinosaur. A waitress in a tattered-hem cheetah-print miniskirt, black tank top, leather tool belt and a plastic bone-and-bead necklace, the pink bows on her fishnet socks peeking over Uggs, will bring you a big bowl of "three-flavored sauce chicken" and a plate of grilled sausages. A Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton looks on from the middle of the dining room.
FOR THE RECORD:
Language: An article about theme restaurants in the June 11 Food stated that menu items at Class 302 were written on a chalkboard in Mandarin. Mandarin is a spoken language. The written language is Chinese. —
Or maybe you're looking for a Ginza street scene and some crepes, or a little rumble with your fried squid in the Amazon jungle, or you just feel like sitting at a school desk and trying to decipher what's on the blackboard while sipping iced grapefruit-honey green tea and snacking on pork chops, pickled vegetables and rice from a lunch tin.
It's a bit of Tokyo -- where "cosplay" (as in "costume play") cafes reign -- or a touch of Taipei -- which might be the global epicenter of theme restaurants -- right here in Southern California, no stranger to the thrill of simulacra served up with dinner (think Cafe '50s or Clifton's Cafeteria, but crank up the imagination a few notches). After all, Los Angeles is the birthplace of the first Polynesian-themed tiki bar -- Don the Beachcomber (artifacts from tropical locales, exotic rum-based drinks, Cantonese dishes).
But it's a new spin on the cultural mash-up when a "squaw" from the island formerly known as Formosa sports a pair of denim cutoffs and a feather in her hair in a dream-catcher-decorated pub called Indian. It's the most popular of the San Gabriel Valley's themed Taiwanese pubs, at least partly because it has the best food, including specialties such as stir-fried sliced lamb with basil, fried oysters, sautéed a choy, and grilled corn or long-fermented -- a.k.a. odorous or stinky -- tofu.
Owner Su Yu Feng Yu bought the restaurant four years ago and brought in her own chef. "I liked the atmosphere," she says, "and all the young people who come to eat" -- some of whom now call her "mama." Here the "Golden Brand" beer flows, the flat-screen TVs are set to the latest Lakers game, and T-Pain's "Get Low" booms over the speakers as diners tuck into "three-flavor" chicken (the three flavors refer to soy sauce, rice wine and sesame oil) at rough-hewn wooden tables arranged under fake maple trees.
The San Gabriel restaurant is modeled on a chain of pubs, also called Indian, in Taipei. In fact, Taipei's theme restaurants keep pushing the oddball envelope: A hospital-themed restaurant there is decorated with crutches and wheelchairs; servers are dressed as nurses and the drinks are poured into glasses from an IV tube. At a chain of toilet-themed cafes, diners eat from toilet-shaped bowls. And a restaurant named Jail delivers the experience of eating behind bars, sort of.
Eating in handcuffs might not fly here, but in Culver City, you will find a New York art collector's interpretation of a Japanese maid cafe (or "maid-kissa") -- Royal/T Cafe, which opened last month in the Royal/T art gallery. Works by the likes of Takashi Murakami, Yayoi Kusama and Chris Ofili are featured. In the middle of the cafe is Murakami's "Jikok-Kun, 2003," a 6-foot-tall stuffed animal (dangerously white in a room filled with tea and coffee drinkers).
"In this space, with all of the Japanese pop art, what better than a maid cafe?" says general manager Sandra Westwood. "It's a cafe inspired by certain aspects of the maid cafes in Japan. But none of the waitresses here are greeting the customers with 'Welcome home, master,' feeding them with a spoon or stirring their coffee for them."
It's not just the Taiwanese expats or the hard-core otaku (those with obsessive interests, such as in Japanese anime) who are drawn to Asian-inflected cross-cultural experiential dining.
On a recent Saturday night at dinosaur-themed Jurassic in Industry, a group of non-Taiwanese ad-exec types share a hot pot and a pile of fried clams. In a private nook, several non-Taiwanese fellows are holding a bachelor party. "This is great; I like the atmosphere here," says the groom-to-be, among the flurry of cave women carting hot dishes from the kitchen and hauling two buckets at a time to bus tables. (Note: Jurassic is conveniently located in the same strip mall as the Dawg House pool hall and bar and Hawaii Theater -- "live nude showgirls," the sign says.)
The crowd might be slightly more ingenuous at somewhat more innocuous Genki Living, a Japanese-street-themed creperie in Arcadia. The photomurals on the walls depict neon-lit Tokyo, benches and patio furniture surround a fake tree in the middle of the room, and the front counter is outfitted as various street-food stalls, with a florist's storefront thrown in for good measure -- and a red phone booth.
In the corner, a group of twentysomethings is playing Chinese checkers and noshing on crispy crepes rolled up like big ice cream cones and taiyaki (filled fish-shaped Japanese waffles).
Meanwhile, the Taiwanese-style theme restaurant (and "three-flavor" chicken) seems to be proliferating. The jungle's the theme at Amazon in Alhambra, and it's always recess at Class 302 in Rowland Heights.
The dance tracks are unrelentingly loud at Amazon, booths are dressed as thatched-roof huts, and a PVC-pipe-lined "river" trickles through part of the dining room. There's also a "bear crossing" sign (who knew there were bears in the Amazon?). On the menu are all the pub favorites (the ubiquitous three-flavored chicken gets one-upped by five-flavored squid), prepared with less deftness than at Indian. Inevitably, somebody gets up from his seat at the table and starts dancing to "What Is Love" à la "A Night at the Roxbury."
At Class 302, the waitresses are dressed in school uniforms, the menu is written (in Mandarin) on a big blackboard at the front of the room, and diners sit at wooden desks. After-school specials -- "railroad-style" pork chops and egg roll-like chicken "rolls" -- come stacked in old-fashioned lunch tins. Shaved ice is a mix-and-match affair, with options such as tapioca, almond tofu, red bean, grass jelly and fudge.
And if you want the waitress' attention, raise your hand.
Pick your theme
Amazon. Taiwanese pub with a jungle theme (more Mekong than Amazon), nightclub lighting and thumping dance music. 247 E. Main St., Unit 2, Alhambra, (626) 308-9385.
Class 302. After-school specials include pork chops served in lunch tins and big bowls of classic shaved ice at this classroom-themed cafe. 1015 S. Nogales St., No. 125, Rowland Heights, (626) 965-5809.
Genki Living. A creperie in an "outdoor" courtyard, with photomurals of neon-lit Tokyo as background, plus a random U.K.-style phone booth. 651 W. Duarte Road, Suite C, Arcadia, (626) 447-5116.
Indian. Diners wait in line for delicious "three-flavored sauce chicken" and sliced, grilled boar at this popular Indian-themed pub. 633 S. San Gabriel Blvd., Suite 105, San Gabriel, (626) 287-0688.
Jurassic. A dark, dinosaur- themed pub with Flintstone decor and waitresses in cave women uniforms who bus tables with buckets. 15301 Gale Ave., Industry, (626) 336-5899, jurassicrestaurant.com
Royal/T Cafe. L.A.'s first "maid cafe," serving high tea and Asian-inspired snacks in a bright Japanese-pop-art-filled gallery and retail space. 8910 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (310) 559-6300, royal-t.org
-- Betty Hallock