Here in the U.S., we’re spoiled by fantastic restaurants all across the country, serving the best sushi, delicious BBQ and out oh-so-delectable pizza. But, sometimes, you and your group crave more than an outstanding meal. If you’re looking for an all-around experience, an ordinary white tablecloth spot just isn’t enough. Enter the concept of the themed restaurant. From coast to coast, there are plenty of wacky, unique, oddly themed eateries—whether you want to feel like a ninja or chow down on more garlic than you thought yourself capable of eating. Here is a list of some of our favorites.
Themed restaurants in America
A spinoff of a wildly successful Tokyo spot, Ninja New York is a fantasyland where guests are made to feel like they’re dining in a Japanese mountain village. In between taking orders and clearing plates, black-robed servers perform “ninja magic tricks”—hokey, but entertaining. To eat, choose from a dizzying array of bites, from overstuffed sushi rolls to crispy plates of tempura.
This LAX-adjacent spot began life in 1967 as an aviation-themed restaurant but was recently reborn as a modern food hall featuring six stalls serving Asian, Italian and American fare. The aviation theme has been preserved: Giant model planes hang from the ceiling and the lingo echoes travel language (“Arrival” is where you place your order, “Departure” where you pick it up). Don’t forget to visit the Mile High Club bar to pick up a cocktail or a glass of wine.
City-dwelling fans of alcoholic libations have likely encountered their fair share of speakeasies, but this SoMa watering hole takes the trend to a new level: its entrance is through a game room featuring pinball machines, foosball and shuffleboard tables. Climb the stairs to access the rest of the 10,000 square feet, sleekly styled with leather couches and zebra-print throw pillows—oh, yeah, and arcade games such as Donkey Kong and Street Fighter. The games might be childish, but the drinks are all grown up, like the Konami Code with spiced tequila, mezcal and lime.
A Brooklyn standby devoted to the fine art of tiki, this bamboo-thatched hangout serves tall, umbrella- and flower-garnished cocktails that are as strong as they are sweet. Of the various fruity libations, the four-person Scorpion Bowl—a deadly mix of high-octane 151, brandy and various fruit juices—is the most-ordered drink. As you and your pals get blasted, enjoy the Polynesian decor, including ceramic masks and totems, and check out the breezy backyard.
While it’s no Tonga Room, Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale (located about 45 minutes north of Miami) certainly puts its best foot forward, with an intricately decorated, thatched-roof dining room and a nightly revue featuring scantily clad dancers wearing grass skirts and not much else. The classic pupu platter—accompanied by a frosty Tahitian Breeze, of course—is a must-order.
Magic Time Machine in San Antonio
It’s tough to summarize this San Antonio classic, open since 1973: a themed restaurant that embraces everything from Marvel comics to Pirates of the Caribbean, its dining room is a hodgepodge of seating areas such as a school bus, a tiki hut and even an old refrigerator. Servers are dressed as all kinds of characters: Spider Man, Robin Hood, Jack Sparrow and more. Anything goes. It’s a hodgepodge that’s clearly aimed at kids, though grownups will enjoy the post-10pm saloon featuring a full bar and live music.
Photograph: Courtesy Yelp/Sarah J.
For 50 years, Midwesterners have flocked to Milwaukee’s SafeHouse, a spy-themed bar and restaurant that serves cocktails inspired by well-known secret agents ("Sterling Archer," "The Man with the Copper Mug") and requires a password (or the completion of an outlandish "clearance test") for entry. Last year, the immersive experience opened a second location in the Windy City, where would-be spies turn down an alleyway, enter under a sign that reads “International Exports Ltd.,” and drink and dine under decor made of espionage artifacts, the flight deck of a WWII-era spy plane and a piece of the Berlin Wall.
Harvey Washbanger’s in College Station, TX
Only in Texas, folks: this perennially packed spot combines a state of the art laundromat with a gourmet burger joint and craft beer bar. Tote your whites and colors to the 80-machine washing room; toss them in a high-efficiency washer; then grab a seat in the dining room next door. A light board will let you know when it’s time to transfer your clothes to the dryer; in the meantime, chow down on oversized, juicy burgers like the Cajun, an andouille-and-Angus patty topped with pepper jack and fried crawfish, and gulp down some locally brewed suds.
Photograph: Courtesy Yelp/Michelle M.
Setting up a tiki bar can be low-hanging fruit—throw up some masks and break out the fruit juices and rum—but few, if any, other tiki bars in the nation show as much obsessive dedication to the form as Nob Hill’s classic watering hole Tonga Room. Located inside the iconic Fairmont hotel, the Polynesian-style bar-restaurant has been pouring mai tais since 1945, but in 2010 benefited from a $1 million renovation and facelift. While we love the balanced drinks and indulgent finger foods, it’s the ambience at Tonga Room that’s unparalleled: built around a “lagoon” that was formerly the hotel’s swimming pool, it features a floating stage that’s occupied nightly by a live orchestra.
In a post-apocalyptic world, dining options would surely be limited to canned goods and salvaged MREs, but at this Fishtown themed restaurant, the end of the world is a far more flavorful affair. The decor could be called “scorched-earth chic,” and cocktails, served in tin cans, continue the theme. Hearty proteins, like a 14-ounce New York strip, are sizzled table-side on hot lava rocks. At the bar, you’ll find a list of specialty drink, such as the Vigilante and the Flame Thrower, beers on draft and in cans and bottles, and an extensive wine menu with varieties available by the glass or bottle.