It leapt, panther-like, onto the scene a full 25 years ago, and so it may surprise you to learn that the Rainforest Cafe is in fact still going strong. The Rainforest Cafe’s first location was in the Mall of America. Our nation’s biggest shopping center — at that time, at least — already had its own sprawling amusement park. Why not a kitschy restaurant seemingly run by animatronic animals (without the Chuck E. Cheese music-playing ability, of course)?
Keep in mind this was 1994, a great year for music but an otherwise strange one for the rest of our culture. Genetically-engineered foods entered the picture, Nancy Kerrigan was attacked, and Beanie Babies were starting their ascension. Perhaps it’s not shocking that a red-eyed, alien-like frog named Cha Cha would become one of several Rainforest Cafe mascots.
Any product of the 1990s recalls the especially vocal plight of the rainforest. Remember the countless campaigns? The staggering facts revealed about slash-and-burn development and its devastating toll on the Amazon? Critters like jaguars, toucans — hell, even anacondas — became heroic symbols of not only an exotic, magical place; but a disappearing one at that.
Why not bring the rainforest to life in the last rational place on earth, the suburban mall? That was at least part of the idea. It’s claimed that the founder assembled a test version of the restaurant in his basement, powered by a river made up of 3,700 extension cords.
If Disneyland taught us anything, it’s that parents need access to booze while their kids amuse themselves. Rainforest Cafe’s drinks options are the work of Big Food Coloring, if there is such a thing, a smattering of neon concoctions so bright they’re almost warm to the touch (think of Applebee’s cocktails, but brighter).
The menu is still chock-full of proud beverages. The margarita, or “Margarilla,” which claims to be the best north or south of the equator. The “Cheetah Rita,” mixed up “fast and furiously.” The “Mongoose Mai Tai.” The “Pink Parrot Lemonade,” topped with Sprite. Sugar and alcohol have never seen so much of each other.
The Rainforest Cafe offers an important lesson in contextual drinking. Of course the drinks aren’t great. That’s beside the point. But when a gorilla is beating its fake chest, lights are flickering to mimic an electrical storm, and the volcano dish your kid just ordered shows up mostly on fire, it just needs to be large and boozy. Better still, make it a souvenir (“buy the drink, keep the glass”)!
On the food side of things, the menu has been updated slightly to include some more modern and probably healthy items (I’ll put money on the fact a kale and red quinoa salad or a poké bowl were not on the menu when the restaurant first launched), but for the most part the offerings are exactly what you would expect from a family-friendly restaurant: a smattering of fried foods like chicken bites or shrimp, burgers, sandwiches, and a slew of items vaguely related to the cafe’s theme — “Amazon Fajitas,” “Volcanic Cobb Salad,” and more in that vein.
(We’re not going to get into the items, such as Tuki’s Turkey Club,” wherein a rainforest animal seems to be attempting to get you to eat a non-rainforest animal. In this case Tuki, the “amusing and curious baby elephant” is attempting to get you to eat turkey.)
I recall dining at a Rainforest Cafe in an American mall years ago. It was like a stroll through a giant version of the produce section of your local supermarket, augmented by fake claps of thunder that sound as the misters turn on. The waiters had to call themselves safari guides. There were fake elephants. Animal sounds poured out of the speakers, tucked neatly behind fake palm fronds. Did I say fake? It was, but it also kinda felt real.
An adult might say, “I get it, it’s an examination of what’s become of the rainforest.” But that’s probably overthinking. A kid is just happy to be around so many fun animals, even if some are a little scarier than others.
Like any good chain, the Rainforest Cafe just keeps trucking. It’s weathered the various economic downturns and the rise in foodie culture that was spurred by the likes of the Food Network, Michael Pollan, and others. It’s had its share of closures, about half to be sure, but despite big retail mostly shifting online, this ultra-themed restaurant enterprise is mostly still at it. Like Planet Hollywood or Bennigan’s, Rainforest Cafe refuses to die.
Looking to revisit a Rainforest Cafe? Check here for locations.
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