NEW YORK -- Tuesday night, hundreds of invited guests flocked to West 57th Street here to salute the opening of Planet Hollywood, a sprawling restaurant and bar that is dedicated to the deep-down desire to be one with the silver screen, or at least TTC to be somebody -- somebody famous, somebody else.
Forget the free-range chicken. Let the free-range fantasy roll. The walls of Planet Hollywood curve around the 350 seats, placing diners at the epicenter of an alternate reality.
A 40-foot mural dominates one wall. Movie memorabilia -- the dress that Dorothy wore in "The Wizard of Oz," James Dean's motorcycle -- are displayed in museum cases. Oh, and the menu. There are Buffalo wings, pizza bread, blackened fish and burgers. Dinner runs about $15.
"This is definitely more than dinner," said Vard McManhon, a 28-year-old designer, who watched as the final touches were put on the restaurant's facade last week. "It's like going someplace you always wanted to go for the price of a burger," he said.
Hollywood isn't the only dream spot that diners want to visit. A block away, there are still lines at the Hard Rock Cafe (of which there are now 16 branches worldwide).
Farther west, Le Bar Bat, an Indochinese version of Maxwell's Plum, has been packed since its opening last May. Downtown, Ed Debevic's, a 1950s diner, jumps like a non-stop sock hop.
The decade of food as art is giving way to restaurants as conceptual art. Theme-park restaurants that have long played to loyal audiences from Peoria to Orlando are suddenly the chat of le tout New York.
A month before it opened, Planet Hollywood's private party room and screening room were heavily booked. The restaurant's telephone -- (212) 333-STAR -- was ringing like a frantic curtain call.
"The epicurean minions will despair," predicted Michael Stern, who with his wife, Jane, wrote "American Gourmet" (HarperCollins), a new compendium of what the book's jacket calls "swank 'company' food from the '50s and '60s."
Mr. Stern said that restaurants where the whims of the chef are subordinated to a theme represent a populist defiance of food snobbism.
"For the last 10 years we had people yammering away about food as art and wagging fingers about diet, and the real, basic truth about food got lost," he said. "Food is supposed to be fun."
Having recently returned from a three-day stay at Opryland, near Nashville, where he demonstrated the preparation of Pepsi-Cola cake with peanut butter frosting, Mr. Stern is convinced.
"There are thousands of people ready to eat butter again," he said. "There are millions of people who want to have some fun."
John Mariani, whose restaurant history "America Eats Out" was published last month by William Morrow, said that Americans never stopped wanting to have fun.
"There's always been a gimmick in American restaurants," he said. "Food was the come-on during the '80s, and now that is changing."
His book traces dining gimmicks, from stands shaped like hot dogs to restaurants with wine lists as thick as a dictionary.
He found that the snob appeal of an imperious maitre d'hotel is just as much a marketing tool as the mammoth milk bottle that housed a Hood ice cream stand in Boston.
Joseph Baum, the president of the Joseph Baum & Michael Whiteman Co., a restaurant consulting concern in New York, said that although cooking is still important, restaurateurs "are constantly asking themselves: 'How can I be different?' 'How can I get people to come in?' "