Beyond Las Vegas wedding chapels and top-to-bottom themes, restaurants today are aiming to get butts in seats with a new crop of surprising twists.
While some attractions are over the top—not everyone can fashion a floating car to take customers to and from the front door (see No. 2)—many recent restaurant draws are add-ons in the same spirit as the pictures on the wall, only much more buzzworthy.
Here, a roundup of what passes for entertainment these days at restaurants.
1. Artistic mini-golf course at Can Can Wonderland
The name is a dead giveaway that there’s much more to see here than just the food on the plate. Filling the 19,000-square-foot space is an artist-designed 18-hole indoor mini-golf course, vintage pinball machines and a stage which hosts a vaudevillian array of acts from musicians to poets to jugglers.
Oh yeah, and there’s food too, dished out from a section of the place dubbed the Can Can Culinary Amusement Park. The whimsical entrees sound like carnival snacks: There are five kinds of grilled cheese sandwiches, fancified hot dogs, nachos and desserts like sage and maple cotton candy. There is a main bar with adult drinks, and a Wee Bar with soda fountain drinks—plus a secret bar.
2. Floating car at The Boathouse
3. Ferris wheel at Betty Dangers
Crazy as it sounds, it’s not the neon pink fireplaces, 8 1/2-hole indoor miniature golf course or plastic “imaginary pets” that live there that are the scene stealers at Betty Danger’s Country Club. The biggest spectacle—literally—is a 65-foot lighted Ferris wheel.
During the warmer months at this Minneapolis Tex Mex restaurant and bar, the wheel (aka the mechanical tree or “The Danger”) functions as an outdoor patio where patrons can enjoy cocktails (with a 20-minute ride package), snacks or a meal (an add-on) and watch the scene go by.
The fun here is adult-focused: kids are welcome but guests must be 50 inches tall to golf and ride.
4. Pawn shop at Beauty & Essex
Patrons pass through a fully operational pawn shop—hawking guitars, estate-sale jewelry and vintage memorabilia—before entering the luxe restaurant, bar and lounge by one of the founders of top-grossing independent restaurant Tao.
With locations in Las Vegas and New York City and a third coming soon to Los Angeles, the pawn shop draws its own customer base, pulling in thousands of dollars a week during the holiday season. But it’s not a drag on the restaurant part of the business; NYC’s location reported $16.9 million in food and beverage revenues in 2015.
5. A hidden entry at Secret Pizza
This New York-style pizza joint tucked away on the third floor of the Cosmopolitan Las Vegas drums up intrigue and appeals to guests who desire to be in the know.
There’s no signage, and it’s not listed online among Cosmopolitan’s dining options. Guest have to follow a long hallway lined with record album covers to discover the restaurant. Inside, the counter-service pizza place with a simple menu is an anomaly in the too-cool-for-school hotel.
6. Five-story redwood at Clifton’s
This iconic 80-year-old cafeteria-style restaurant in LA recently underwent a $10 million renovation by its new developer owner. But it retained its “cabinet of curiosities” vibe, which is said to have inspired Walt Disney to create Disneyland.
The centerpiece of the five-floor, 50,000-square-foot space is a floor-to-ceiling faux redwood tree that sports a carve-out for a fireplace and serves as an area around which entertainers perform. Smaller trees, murals and antler chandeliers decorate the rest of the massive restaurant, which also boasts a 250-pound meteorite as a must-see.
7. Dwarf door at Chick-fil-A's Hapeville Dwarf House
This Hapeville, Ga., restaurant is the original location of the Dwarf Grill, which would eventually spawn chicken chain Chick-fil-A.
Although it offers the expected Chick-fil-A menu, the Hapeville Dwarf House is clearly not the typical Chick-fil-A restaurant. The first clue is the miniature red door on the exterior—which, today, is easy Instagram bait.
In addition, it is open 24 hours a day (though closed Sundays, like all units of the chain) and there’s a full-service area inside the restaurant that serves items from the original Dwarf House menu, such as a rib-eye steak platter and a Hot Brown (chopped chicken, cream sauce, cheese and bacon).
8. Private dining in an Airstream at Ida Claire
One might expect a restaurant that trades in “elevated” Southern hospitality and promises chicken and waffles on the breakfast, lunch and dinner menus to host private dining in an intimate space. At Ida Claire in Dallas, it’s very intimate: The restaurant rents out its airstream trailer, outfitted with bandana-lined walls and an end-to-end wraparound bench, for social functions and business meetings. It’s situated at the edge of its full-service outdoor patio.
9. Hanging table at Dominique Ansel’s U.P.
The pastry chef whose food itself is a weird draw—he invented the Cronut—isn’t above offering a little nonculinary intrigue to the dining experience. At Dominique Ansel’s U.P. (short for unlimited possibilities) in New York City, ticketed guests dine at a 12-person chef’s table that descends from the ceiling in the restaurant’s production kitchen.
The food is ambitious as well. U.P. serves an after-hours dessert-only tasting menu with craft cocktail pairings, and its theme changes every month (dessert barbecue was a recent one). The space is above Dominique Ansel Kitchen, a bakery that cooks pastries to order.
10. Old-time phone booth at Sparrow
This cocktail bar in the lobby of a restored art deco apartment building draws inspiration from history for both its menu and decor. From the folks behind Chicago’s retro bar The Betty, Sparrow’s space includes a full-size phone booth with a working rotary phone—something its younger guests have likely never even seen IRL—and a mirrored sign that reminds people to “Call your mother.” There’s also a wall decorated with colorful motel room key tags, adding to the old-school vibe.
11. Giant spinning wheel at Concrete Cowboy
It’s not a mechanical bull that baits crowds at Concrete Cowboy. A DJ booth, sleek leather stools, lighted marquis signs and twinkle light-clad trees make the decor at the three Texas locations of this nightclub-like bar far more urban than the kind of honky tonk in the “Urban Cowboy” movie.
But raucous fun is spurred here by a giant spinning wheel behind the bar. A lucky pull can win a customer a body shot, a signature shooter, a free T-shirt, an invitation to “kiss a random” and more.
12. 18-person hot tub at Bunny Slope
Instead of bar stools and high tops, guests at Bunny Slope cocktail lounge at Chicago’s Acme Hotel socialize and sip their concoctions from the comfort of an 18-person hot tub.
The full bar program at the ski lodge-themed space, available for private bookings only, was developed by the mixologist at the hotel’s Berkshire Room, which itself offers craft cocktails and bar snacks as well as an off-menu bartender’s choice drink option.
Bunny Slope is run by Fifty/50 Restaurant Group, founded by veterans of restaurateur Rich Melman’s Lettuce Entertain You group.
13. A giant chicken at Crack Shack
Oversize cartoony statues used to be the thing of roadside food stops (we’re looking at you, Bob’s Big Boy). The Crack Shack, peddling cheffy chicken sandwiches in San Diego and Encinitas, Calif., and backed by Richard Blais from "Top Chef All Stars", is reprising the idea. For today’s consumers, The Crack Shack’s larger-than-life cartoony chicken not only makes it easy to spot the concept from the road, but it’s also an Instagram magnet, generating its own word-of-mouth marketing.
A bocce ball and a sandbox help attract families and not just single foodies to this partially open-air, fast-casual restaurant with a full bar.
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