Theme restaurants serve up the unusual

June 29, 2008|By Betty Hallock | Betty Hallock,LOS ANGELES TIMES

She's wearing white knee socks and black high-heeled Mary Janes, a ruffled headband, and a short petticoat-lined dress with puff sleeves, rounded collar and a patch-pocket apron, and she's here to pour your tea and serve cucumber finger sandwiches.

French maid not your thing? Go dinosaur. A waitress in a tattered-hem cheetah-print miniskirt, black tank top, leather tool belt and a plastic bone-and-bead necklace, the pink bows on her fishnet socks peeking over Uggs, will bring you a big bowl of "three-flavored sauce chicken" and a plate of grilled sausages. A Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton looks on from the middle of the dining room.

Or maybe you're looking for a Ginza street scene and some crepes, or a little rumble with your fried squid in the Amazon jungle, or you just feel like sitting at a school desk and trying to decipher what's on the blackboard while sipping iced grapefruit-honey green tea and snacking on pork chops, pickled vegetables and rice from a lunch tin.

It's a bit of Tokyo - where "cosplay" (as in "costume play") cafes reign. Or a touch of Taipei - which might be the global epicenter of theme restaurants - in Southern California, no stranger to the thrill of simulacra served up with dinner (think Cafe '50s or Clifton's Cafeteria, but crank up the imagination a few notches). After all, Los Angeles is the birthplace of the first Polynesian-themed tiki bar - Don the Beachcomber (artifacts from tropical locales, exotic rum-based drinks, Cantonese dishes).

But it's a new spin on the cultural mash-up when a "squaw" sports a pair of denim cutoffs and a feather in her hair in a dream-catcher-decorated pub called Indian. It's the most popular of the San Gabriel Valley's themed Taiwanese pubs, at least partly because it has the best food, including specialties such as stir-fried sliced lamb with basil, fried oysters, sauteed a "choy," and grilled corn or long-fermented - a.k.a. odorous or stinky - tofu.

Owner Su Yu Feng Yu bought the restaurant four years ago and brought in her own chef. "I liked the atmosphere," she says, "and all the young people who come to eat" - some of whom now call her "mama." Here the "Golden Brand" beer flows, the flat-screen TVs are set to the latest Los Angeles Lakers game, and T-Pain's "Get Low" booms over the speakers as diners tuck into "three-flavor" chicken (the three flavors refer to soy sauce, rice wine and sesame oil) at rough-hewn wooden tables arranged under fake maple trees.

The restaurant is modeled on a chain of pubs, also called Indian, in Taipei. In fact, Taipei's theme restaurants keep pushing the oddball envelope: A hospital-themed restaurant there is decorated with crutches and wheelchairs; servers are dressed as nurses, and the drinks are poured into glasses from an IV tube. And a restaurant named Jail delivers the experience of eating behind bars, sort of.

In Culver City, Calif., you will find a New York art collector's interpretation of a Japanese maid cafe (or "maid-kissa") - Royal/T Cafe, which opened last month in the Royal/T art gallery. Works by the likes of Takashi Murakami, Yayoi Kusama and Chris Ofili are featured. In the middle of the cafe is Murakami's "Jikok-Kun, 2003," a 6-foot-tall stuffed animal (dangerously white in a room filled with tea and coffee drinkers).

"In this space, with all of the Japanese pop art, what better than a maid cafe?" says general manager Sandra Westwood. "It's a cafe inspired by certain aspects of the maid cafes in Japan. But none of the waitresses here are greeting the customers with 'Welcome home, master,' feeding them with a spoon or stirring their coffee for them."

It's not just the Taiwanese expats or the hard-core "otaku" (those with obsessive interests, such as in Japanese anime) who are drawn to Asian-inflected cross-cultural experiential dining.

On a recent Saturday night at dinosaur-themed Jurassic, a group of non-Taiwanese ad-exec types share a hot pot and a pile of fried clams. In a private nook, several non-Taiwanese fellows are holding a bachelor party. "This is great; I like the atmosphere here," says the groom-to-be, among the flurry of cave women carting hot dishes from the kitchen and hauling two buckets at a time to bus tables.

Betty Hallock writes for the Los Angeles Times.

No Restaurant Review

Elizabeth Large is on vacation. Her review will return next week.

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