Despite the celebrated demise of the Fashion and All-Star cafés and the imminent disasters of Steven Spielberg’s aquatic Dive! (in L.A.) and David Copperfield’s Magic Underground, theme spots haven’t died. The best motifs have thrived – hell, even the evil survive: Howard Stern still loves Scores, and the Motown, Hard Rock, and Harley Davidson cafés continue to affront the sensibilities of every taste arbiter in the city. Theme bars are booming: from the extraterrestrial (Mars 2112) to the trendy terrarium (Orchard Bar), from the Moroccan chic of Kush and Fez to the Detroit scrap heap of Motor City. You may even spot Will Oldham – indie rock’s odd, new patron saint – conferring with the robed “brewist monks” in their East 7th Street “Temple of Beer Worship,” Burp Castle. And while not all downtown theme bars work, there are a few gems: The Library keeps its pedantic theme low-key, and Idlewild painstakingly re-creates the claustrophobic interior of a swingers’ jet, complete with high-altitude drink prices.
New York’s best theme bars, Beauty Bar (231 East 14th Street; 539-1389) and Barmacy (538 East 14th Street; 228-2240), are guarded by the good witch of kitsch Deb Parker, founder of seminal theme bars Babyland and No-Tell Motel. Parker, who says poorly contrived spectacles fail because “they have no soul,” describes her bars as loving acts of “hysterical preservation.” Her passion for kitsch complements her conviction that “drunks like to look at things.” Though sometimes flooded by Eurotrash who gawk at the antique hair dryers, medicines, skin lighteners, and suppositories on display, both bars are still, believe it or not, fun. At Beauty Bar, ten bucks gets you a manicure and a drink at happy hour; at Barmacy, you’re prescribed “sanctioned medications” not so different from patent medicines. Parker’s next high concept? Opening “an entire house as a bar in Brooklyn, where people can have a drink at the dining-room table or on the sofa in the living room.”