Baltimore developer is betting a rubbernecker restaurant will thrill hungry patrons, who'll munch amid crunching steel.

CRASH COURSES A

March 18, 1998|By ROB HIAASEN | ROB HIAASEN,SUN STAFF

A DC-3 passenger plane is severed at the cockpit. The mangled fuselage burns and smokes, as survivors step over jetties of twisted steel. Curiosity seekers find no bodies or bones in the crackling rubble.

Somebody then orders the Caribbean shrimp.

What could be more appetizing than munching tapas amid burning buildings and continuous videos of train crashes? Nothing works up an appetite more than sitting in a downed jet for a photo-op. A restaurant theme has been born.

"We'll have a lot of fun things like that," says longtime Baltimore developer Patrick Turner. "But no blood and guts -- and no road kill."

Now, sir, don't go taking all the fun out of your theme restaurant. The 46-year-old Turner -- along with colleague Scott Robertson -- plans to build a Crash Cafe somewhere in Baltimore. Turner hopes to get Crash Cafe off the ground by the end of the year, if there are not any more snags.

The Crash Cafe promises to offer the ultimate curb appeal in retail history, boasts an in-the-works press release. Turner also envisions building Crash Cafes in Chicago, Los Angeles and Orlando -- a theme in itself. Based on his research, he says, there's never been a better time for a crash-and-burn restaurant.

"People are instinctively drawn to crashes," says Turner from his office at Henrietta Corp. in Baltimore. "We came up with this concept that grabbed everybody. It crosses all demographic barriers."

Crash and burn mentality

You could question his theme but perhaps not his timing. America is crazy about crashes. We've gone so far beyond meekly peeking at a passing car crash. We want to get up close and personal with car and plane crashes, police chases and all disasters great and small. The mother of all disasters -- the sinking of the Titanic -- has never been so captivating and profitable.

Personal misfortunes of the unfortunates are highlighted daily on daytime talk shows. The mail-order video "Jerry Springer: Too Hot for TV!" is considered must-see TV in some circles. Springer's ratings have rocketed lately -- passing even "Oprah Winfrey" for one week -- ever since producers stopped editing out the slugfests that ensue when some poor dude learns his girlfriend is also some poor dude.

Also on the tube, so-called shockumentaries are in vogue. "When Animals Attack" and "World's Scariest Police Chases" are two popular titles. There are plane-crash videos, sort of a Greatest Hits collection: Maybe you've seen the video clips of blazing planes crash-landing, helicopters whirling out of control, or speedboats performing unplanned somersaults?

On the renaissance Internet, "Mike's Grand Prix 2 Crashes" promises excellent crashage (really, why do people watch racing anyway?). "The Crash Zone" boasts pictures and crash reportage, too: "CAR SPLIT IN HALF. THIS IS A NASTY ONE."

Last year, "Crash" was this weird little movie no one admitted seeing. It was about a cult of crash fetishists who find sexual satisfaction in and among the flesh and metal of car crashes. Holly Hunter was even in the movie. We can't detail her scenes, but they didn't bring to mind "Car Talk."

"That movie was sick," Turner says, drawing the line. Admittedly, he doesn't want his idea coming off as "sick." His Charles Street business phone is 410-34CRASH, but that's mildly quirky, not sick.

The Crash Cafe will be wholesome eats and entertainment for the whole family, Turner says. No fetish thing happening. All disasters and collisions will be "tastefully" staged, he pledges. The waiters and waitresses will double as stunt men and women and might fall from a burning balcony or something. They might even bring your food.

Elbow room

Outside the restaurant, a mock DC-3 (made in Mexico) will be jabbed into the restaurant's facade. Kids will be able to sit in the cockpit and be photographed. Inside, planted rubble and debris "will be pushed aside to make room for this real hip oasis," Turner says. The real hip oasis will feature hip tables and chairs where people will "eat."

Real hip appetizers will be offered, such as Caribbean shrimp and something called crispy leek rings. "Skewered monkfish" was mentioned -- but was not clearly defined as of press time. Turner was able to kill one rumor: Crash Cafe's menus will not be printed on scraps of aluminum. Get real.

On shelled-out walls, videos will constantly show clips of old train wrecks, buildings imploding, demolition derbies and bridges collapsing. Apparently, there is no shortage of archival film about crashes. Where Hard Rock Cafe might have Jimi's guitar strung up, the Crash Cafe promises such nostalgia as a wrecked 1940 Mercedes Benz.

An enduring fascination

In defense of his theme, Turner hails Life magazine, the June 1997 edition. Among the debris of photographs is an article called "The Strange Allure of Disasters: Why We Can't Look Away." From the Hindenburg to the Challenger disasters, from Vesuvius burying Pompeii in 79 A.D. to the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, disasters have always been irresistible, Life says.

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