Varied menu: Whether it's Motown, Hollywood or Harley-Davidsons, New York has a theme restaurant that will suit your taste.

FOOD & FUN: A

November 19, 1995|By Greg Morago | Greg Morago,HARTFORD COURANT

They're the "been there/done that" status symbols of conspicuous consumption. They proudly announce a certain worldly knowledge of all things cool and trendy. They say the velvet ropes were lifted for you and those like you. You have arrived.

No, we're not talking about your Montblanc pen, platinum Amex or Prada bag. Or the shopping bags from Bendel's Barney's or the new Calvin Klein supersarcophagus.

It's your Harley-Davidson Cafe leather jacket, silly! And that Fashion Cafe cropped T-shirt is simply scrumptious, darling. Your Planet Hollywood sweat shirt? Got one just like it, thank you.

Today, nothing says New York louder than those expensive mementos from the city's theme restaurants, a tidal wave of burgers and baubles that successfully combines eating, shopping and entertainment under one twinkling roof.

For many visitors, a trip to the Big Apple would be unthinkable without a stop at an amusement-park restaurant. And now there are many to choose from, most along 57th Street.

Theme restaurants are one of the fastest-growing dining trends (and perhaps the most lucrative) in a city that knows something about food and finance.

One could argue that theme restaurants are a '90s phenomenon. But food critic Tim Zagat, author of the eponymous dining surveys, suggests that the venerable blini hut, the Russian Tea Room, with its always-Christmas decor, qualifies as a pioneer theme restaurant. But today it takes more than samovars and tinsel to woo a public weaned on Industrial Light & Magic. This generation's theme park restaurants are super-pumped fantasies of sight and sound -- Broadway-caliber spectacles with million-dollar budgets, huge casts and enough voltage to light the Empire State Building.

It's not about food, it's about fun, Mr. Zagat concedes. "The food doesn't have to be all that good, as long as it doesn't poison you," he says. "Most people are happy to be sitting between Sylvester Stallone's trunks from 'Rocky' and a model of Arnold Schwarzenegger from 'Terminator II' with a hole through the head."

Here, then, is a guide through New York's theme dining experiences:

Brooklyn Dinner

With its stainless steel, colorful tiles, soda fountain and snug banquettes, the Brooklyn Diner evokes the good old days of egg creams and blackout cake. Indeed, the melting pot that is Brooklyn is represented in a menu that features entrees such as moussaka, baked ziti and blintzes.

Because it opens at 6 a.m. -- most of the theme restaurants are zTC strictly lunch and dinner operations -- the diner has positioned itself as a perfect theme spot for breakfast.

French toast made with thick slices of eggy challah bread is a beautiful thing, and pancakes are light and fluffy. But the corned beef hash seems to want for some moisture, and the poached eggs atop are cooked too hard. But the egg cream, even at 9 a.m., is delicious.

The diner sells T-shirts and Brooklyn chewing gum.

The Brooklyn Diner is at 212 W. 57th St., between Seventh Avenue and Broadway; (212) 977-1957.

Hard Rock Cafe

New York's first modern-generation theme restaurant shows no sign of slowing despite its formidable competition. Diners still wait patiently in line to pass the brass portals into the world of rock memorabilia and electric riffs. Hard Rock rocks hard -- the music is great, but it's loud.

The leader of the pack still makes the best burger of the bunch. And the fries are great, too. A better pulled-pork sandwich would be hard to find.

The gift shop, which sells everything from boxer shorts and backpacks to watches and denim jackets, also features a Signature Series of T-shirts that has raised more than $3 million for environmental and humanitarian causes.

Hard Rock Cafe, 221 W. 57th St., between Seventh Avenue and Broadway; (212) 459-9320.

Fashion Cafe

The odds of running into a super-model at Fashion Cafe are as slim as Kate Moss' wrists.

Visitors enter through a giant camera lens complete with f-stops. But that's as close as diners ever get to being the star of the show; clearly everything else focuses on the world of mass market high fashion. Video monitors transmit fashion shows. Music is catwalk-strut stuff.

The food here doesn't seem the point, but the menu attests that models do live on more than Marlboro Lights, espresso and champagne.

The house Cobb salad with its nicely grilled chicken is pretty good. The international menu lists pasta, crab cakes, Thai spring rolls and various salads and sandwiches.

The gift boutique is cute, and the snazzy Fashion Cafe logo looks smart on most of the emblazoned items.

Fashion Cafe, 51 Rockefeller Plaza (51st Street between Fifth Avenue and Sixth Avenue); (212) 765-3131.

Harley-Davidson Cafe

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