It’s the dead of winter, and most of the fun holidays are behind us—but there’s still months of cold and slush to get through. So we’d like to welcome you to Tropical Staycation, a week of island-inspired recipes and other stories that will transport you to much warmer, sunnier places. Just don’t look out the window while reading.
Last February marked Rainforest Cafe’s 25th anniversary, but who would have known? The chain didn’t seem too loud about celebrating it—and companies love celebrating their birthdays. It seems that the restaurant group is keeping a low profile, not even doing much to maintain a web presence or drum up interest with splashy events like a big birthday bash. It’s been shuttering locations across the country strategically and quietly, and it keeps its remaining locations humming along with an apparent efficiency that you might not expect within such an over-the-top facade, heavy with fiberglass frogs and gorillas and flora. Somehow, in an era where even our Rock ’N’ Roll McDonald’s has faced the wrecking ball, Chicago hangs on to its massive Rainforest Cafe. And somehow, as three full-fledged adults, the staff of The Takeout found themselves there last week to experience it for the first time.
By 1997, when the restaurant first came to Chicago, I was already feeling much too old to request it as a destination for a birthday party or special occasion. My parents never said they didn’t want to go to Rainforest Cafe; they simply saw it as a place so cheesy that no one would want to go, and my (vain) pursuit of adolescent coolness kept me far from its vine-laden doors. Associate editor Aimee Levitt recalled one trip to Rainforest Cafe in her youth but nothing specific about the experience (except that it was the now shuttered suburban location in Woodfield Mall). “I assume I had a good time,” she said. A ringing endorsement! We had to go. And so we did.
For the uninitiated, Rainforest Cafe is a tropical themed restaurant with 18 locations in the U.S. and five around the world (yes, one is in Dubai). Its tagline, “A wild place to shop and eat,” is refreshingly honest, prioritizing the “shop” part of the experience so that the expansive gift shop section of the restaurant, situated between the entrance and the host stand, feels less like a gouging sneak attack of plush snakes and light-up kickballs. The first location opened in 1994 at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota—sort of a perfect setting to capitalize on the 1990s rise of “Save the Rainforest” awareness, when you think about it—and its reach has been expanding and contracting ever since (like a tropical python). The Chicago location sits less than half a mile from The Takeout’s offices.
I had low expectations for Rainforest Cafe, perhaps because I assumed it blew all its money on the facade and prioritized easy-clean surfaces over anything more jungly. As our party of three entered through the leafy archway, however, I realized I couldn’t have been more wrong. It had none of the cafeteria starkness I was expecting; every corner was packed with details to keep eyes darting all around. No ductwork could be seen behind the artificial tree canopy woven through the ceiling beams. A waterfall next to the host stand was realistically thunderous, and our friendly greeter almost had to shout to make himself heard: “Follow the pawprints! Upstairs! To the dining room!” We began our adventure onto the impressively patterned carpet.
The gasp that escaped my lips as we crested the staircase had as much to do with the sheer size of the place than any of its Eden-esque qualities. There was a football field’s worth of seating, tables spread at comfortable distances from one another able to accommodate dozens of parties and hundreds of diners. It’s the sort of dining room that makes you break into a sweat, involuntarily imagining their P&L statements. The place was empty—it was 5 p.m. on a Thursday—and we had our pick of seating. (There would definitely be no sighting of Cha Cha the Tree Frog, a roving costumed mascot, this evening. He wouldn’t have nearly enough diners to mingle with.) “Would you like to sit closer to the elephants?” our second-floor host suggested.
The elephants. Let’s talk about these elephants. Two life-sized (?) African elephants, adult and offspring, serve as a focal point of the dining room, ears continually flicking and trunks swaying. We sat ten feet from them and began to think of them as our dining companions while we perused the menu. It was downright charming—that is, until the thunderstorms started.
It’s a rainforest, and if you thought the Rainforest Cafe wouldn’t lean into its theme with everything it’s got (except actual rain), then you didn’t come here to play ball. Every 15 minutes, the elephants begin their agitated trumpeting, signaling the start of a raging storm simulated by strobing lights, birds going batshit, and bats going apeshit. (The dome of night sky just off to our right, however, remained unclouded.) It’s a conversation-halting, baby-frightening display, and each time it bombarded the dining room, my brain’s anxiety centers shifted from P&L sheets to the sheer lawsuit potential of all these intentional loud sudden noises, perhaps the worst possible pairing for the restaurant’s signature sparkler-topped volcano cake.
When the elephants aren’t screaming for their lives, the rumbling soundscape offers something else: “Volcaaaaano……! Volcaaaaano…! VOLCAAAAANO!” It’s a tuneless pronouncement, but one that turns every head in the room toward the sound of sizzling sparklers. And this cake really is a thing of beauty: three fudgy slices of double chocolate cake standing on end to form a pyramid that encases a mound of ice cream and whipped topping. No child could eat a whole slice without getting sick. I barely managed it myself (but I definitely did). And $18 for an inadvisable amount of chocolate cake is a steal in this part of town. Again, I fretted over the profit margins.
The rest of the menu was decent enough, too; the Taste of the Islands seafood platter seemed like the most reckless possible item to order from a restaurant with a gift shop attached, but we’re three bold women, and we forged ahead. Our server brought us a plate of crispy, sugary-sweet coconut shrimp piled beside a tureen of scallops flooded with flavorless but inoffensive cheese sauce (unless the mere fact of cheese sauce on scallops is sufficient to offend), plus some tilapia that I swear was cooked properly and well. Most importantly, our fruity island lemonades came in flashing battery-operated souvenir tumblers—an effortless upsell from our server, who doled out the most convincing you-don’t-wanna-miss-out tone I’ve ever been plied with. We were, she could tell, along for the ride.
That’s the cardinal rule of dining at Rainforest Cafe. You have to surrender to its precise interpretation of The Rainforest—that is, an utterly imprecise one. You can’t question why the gigantic fish-tank archway behind the host stand has no fish in it. You can’t see a $23 entree called MOJO BONES and lament what you’ve gotten yourself into. At the very least, you’ll walk away full of reasonably priced chocolate cake that was briefly, technically, on fire. And at the most, you’ll gain not a greater appreciation for the true rainforest or the true cuisine of the peoples therein, but an appreciation for what lies behind the doors of a silly place you’ve always assumed wasn’t made for you, but in fact aims to be for everyone. (Or everyone willing to try picking up what it’s putting down.)
And if you find yourself enjoying the place, then Rainforest Cafe is also a restaurant that will inspire a thrumming, low-level dread, because to embrace its shtick is to cling to a relic of an economy that could once support it and now strains to. I don’t claim to know what kind of revenues Rainforest Cafe Chicago rakes in—from us it earned a rather staggering amount, with a bill well over $100 that included zero booze—but I do know that real estate in River North comes at a premium, and this joint takes up half the block. It was uncomfortably empty when we arrived at 5, and only slightly less empty when we left at 7. I worry for the continued existence of this Wild Place To Shop And Eat. I hope this location can hold on and fulfill the tourist district’s cheesiness quota. And there’s no better metaphor for my concern than the constant rumble of thunder from an unseen speaker system, heralding the arrival of another storm.