Hooray! Disney recently announced the closing of several ESPN Zone restaurants, including the one anchored in Times Square. And as we all know, there’s nothing that represents the ongoing degradation of the very soulful soul of New York than the invasion of cookie-cutter-branded theme eateries. ESPN Zone! Hawaiian Tropic Zone! Planet Hollywood! The Goddamned Olive Garden! Like citizens beset by monsters stomping across the skyline, the locals here feel the right to cheer whenever a theme restaurant falls.
We should save the celebrations. Because while New Yorkers were railing against the invasion of endlessly replicable theme restaurants, we were also quietly taking over the business of creating and exporting endlessly replicable theme restaurants.
Forget the hapless Planet Hollywood. If you want to see a theme restaurant that’s really flourishing, visit Keith McNally’s jam-packed new pizzeria, Pulino’s, on the formerly gritty Bowery. Like all of McNally’s super-successful restaurants—from Pastis to Balthazar to Schiller’s to Morandi—it offers a cozy, charming, carefully curated experience-in-a-box. Now, that experience is undeniably more sophisticated and deft than, say, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. But it’s also undeniably the result of a meticulous formula, one built as much on replicating a particular fantasy experience as is any Rainforest Cafe. The experience here, though, is a “darling, tucked-away bistro you happily discovered”—except that now you can pretty much stumble over one on every other block. And McNally’s formula is definitely exportable; even if he’s not yet succumbed to Las Vegas (he’s been offered), you can go to any downtown in the country with a renovated “warehouse district” and find something that’s a pretty good simulacrum of his simulacrum.
Maybe that’s why the BLT empire, realizing this, just went ahead and took its show on the road. If you’ve enjoyed a dinner at BLT Steak in midtown, you can recreate the experience in the BLT Steak restaurants now open in Atlanta, Charlotte, and Scottsdale, Arizona. (By the way, chef Laurent Tourondel is no longer part of the BLT Restaurant Group.) Tom Colicchio has sprinkled Craft-blank restaurants all over New York while establishing outposts in Dallas, Atlanta, Las Vegas, and the MGM Grand at Foxwoods casino. And if you can’t get a table at one of Mario Batali’s famous in-town restaurants, why not take a shot at one of his Las Vegas or Los Angeles locations?
No, these eateries don’t feature giant TV screens, Arnold Schwarzenegger movie memorabilia, grossly inedible food, or animatronic singing animals. We’re much too refined for that. Instead, the theme in these theme restaurants is My, What Good Taste You Have. It’s one of the city’s great exports these days. Who doesn’t want to eat like they do in sophisticated New York? And lest you shrug at the fate of faraway Scottsdale, our super-chefs aren’t done opening massive theme restaurants right here. What else would you call Mario Batali’s Eataly, the skyscraper at Madison Square Park that will soon feature six restaurants, including a gastropub on the roof deck? It’s Batali’s take on the Eataly concept, currently operating in Italy and Japan. Coincidentally, at 42,500 square feet, the Eataly complex in New York will be almost as big as the now-shuttered ESPN Zone. Book your tables today for Planet Batali.