Theme restaurants are restaurants in which the concept of the restaurant takes priority over everything else, influencing the architecture, food, music, and overall 'feel' of the restaurant. The food usually takes a backseat to the presentation of the theme, and these restaurants attract customers solely on the premise of the theme itself.
Popular chain restaurants such as Applebee's or Bennigans – despite having a distinct and consistent style throughout their locations – would not be considered to be theme restaurants by most people. Theme restaurants have an instantly recognizable, easily articulable concept that can be summed up in a few words at most, an almost cartoonish exaggeration of an idea. The popular Rainforest Cafe restaurants have the obvious theme of a "Tropical Rainforest". Medieval Times has its theme of "Medieval Europe". The Jekyll & Hyde Club evokes an atmosphere of Jack the Ripper and Victorian horror novels. Some theme restaurants use controversial images, contexts, or ideas. The most notorious of them is Hitler's Cross, in Mumbai, India.
Chains of tiki bars started opening in the United States in the mid to late 1930s.
In the late 1950s, David Tallichet began opening restaurants decorated as Polynesian islands, New England fishing villages and World War II era French farmhouses (barricaded with sandbags to protect against German bombardment). His Proud Bird restaurant at the Los Angeles International Airport had headphones at each table so that diners could listen to control-tower chatter. Almost all of his restaurants were in Southern California. His company, Specialty Restaurants, grew to revenues of $185 million at its peak in 1980.
The early 21st century closings of several Planet Hollywood, Jekyll & Hyde Club, Wilderness Cafe, and Bugaboo Creek locations suggest a decline in popularity. Theme restaurants often depend on tourist business, since the theme soon becomes stale to locals, and the focus is not necessarily on good food and service. Certain tourist destinations such as the Mall of America or Orlando, Florida have better chances of supporting theme restaurants. Theme restaurants are commonplace at theme parks, such as Universal Studios.
Some well-known theme restaurants
- Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede: American patriotic
- Ed Debevic's: 1950s diner
- Ellen's Stardust Diner: 1950s diner
- Johnny Rockets: 1950s diner
- Hard Rock Cafe: Rock music
- Jekyll & Hyde Club: Victorian English horror
- Medieval Times: Medieval
- Planet Hollywood: The film industry
- Rainforest Cafe: Rainforest
- Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville: Tropical beach
- ESPN Zone: Sports bar
- Bubba Gump Shrimp Company: The film Forrest Gump (the first theme restaurant inspired by a film)
- The Hellfire: A 'haunted' restaurant in Manchester, UK.
- Safe House Restaurant: A spy-themed restaurant/nightclub established in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1966.
- Heart Attack Grill: Hospital
- Steven Spielberg's DIVE!: Submarines