Rainforest Cafe and the Enduring Appeal of Experiential Chain Restaurants

Sometimes, only a burger next to an animatronic tree frog will do.

Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist
Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

In May 2022, two YouTubers crossed the country to take on a culinary quest for the ages. Eddy Burback and Ted Nivison planned to visit the 18 remaining Rainforest Cafes in the U.S. and Canada over the course of 21 days. Starting in California, they trek across the wide expanse of North America to sample the restaurant chain’s beef lava nachos and safari fries. The duo seem to have very different experiences: Burback appears downtrodden, disillusioned by his suburban, jungle-themed environs; while Nivison gleefully cavorts with the animatronic elephants and happily scarfs down his rasta pasta.

What the two seem to share is a type of winking wistfulness for the restaurant or for what it once represented. It’s a common thread in a distinctly millennial and Gen Z subculture that regards experiential chain restaurants like Rainforest Cafe, Planet Hollywood, and other vestiges of the 1990s with equal-parts nostalgia and irony.

The Rainforest Cafe opened its first location in Minnesota’s Mall of America in 1994, and it enjoyed years of success before sales started to slump circa 2000. As early as 1998, The New York Times reported that themed novelty restaurants were struggling, and the Rainforest Cafe was one of the victims of the dawn of the new millennium. A 2000 acquisition by Landry’s, Inc., a restaurant holding company, kept the chain alive, albeit without the enthusiasm it had once generated. During the aughts, locations across the country closed one by one. Now, the chain is a shadow of what it once was, with fewer than 20 branches for Burback and Nivison to visit on their cross-countries quest.

In the intervening years, American culture shifted precipitously. Slews of suburban malls, in which many Rainforest Cafes were located, closed during the Great Recession, their spaces relegated to artifacts from a former economic age. “Over the last decade, I think there were about 900 malls in the United States…. About a third of them have closed,” said Ronald Friedman, partner at Marcum LLP, a firm that conducts consumer research. Americans wrestled with the recession of 2008, no longer keen to spend hundreds of dollars for what many regard as sub-par food—jungle-themed surroundings or not. Stats from the United States Department of Agriculture show that restaurant spending dropped 13% during the Great Recession.

Rainforest Cafe

The years preceding Trump’s election—and the sociopolitical chaos we’ve been mired in since—have ushered in an age of critique of consumerism and capitalism, asking us to be more thoughtful about what we buy and who we buy it from, as well as who is affected in the process. According to a 2021 survey, 85% of consumers, especially millennials and Gen Z, claim they are willing to pay more for sustainable products.

For some modern diners, experiential restaurants like the Rainforest Cafe represent the cultural landscape of a very specific time in American history. In the late 1990s, those with the comfort and privilege to do so could engage in uncritical consumerism, and might choose to eschew politics in favor of the finer things in life, such as brownie “volcanoes” dripping with every sweet topping imaginable and gift shops brimming with $30 stuffed toys.

The YouTube channel The Food Theorists also links the popularity of the Rainforest Cafe as a natural extension of the kind of cheap environmentalism espoused in the ’90s: Save the rainforest by eating a juicy, cheese-covered rainforest burger in a synthetic jungle!

Nearly 30 years after the birth of the Rainforest Cafe, some young restaurant-goers are rediscovering the iconic restaurant experiences of their youth, perhaps seeking the simplicity of a past era—both on a personal and cultural level. In September 2022, Danny Lavery wrote about the chaotic joy of Medieval Times in Food & Wine. TikTokers in their 20s are visiting the American Girl Café, reliving the tea parties of their youth.

“You don’t go to Rainforest Cafe for anything other than fun. There’s a charm in the lack of pretension and the lack of shine to it.”

In an article for Insider, journalist Alanis King attributes some of the modern-day enthusiasm for the Rainforest Cafe to Gen Z’s fascination with the Y2K era. “I think we’re at a very interesting time where Y2K is coming back, and everyone’s… reaching back into this time from when I was a kid, like late ’90s, early 2000s, and it does kind of does make you nostalgic.”

Spencer Cammarano, a Brooklyn-based public relations executive and longtime Rainforest Cafe enthusiast, agrees. “You don’t go to Rainforest Cafe for anything other than fun. There’s a charm in the lack of pretension and the lack of shine to it.”

But, for some, there’s irony to visiting the Rainforest Cafe and other types of experiential restaurants. Burback, one of the two YouTubers who traveled to multiple establishments, seems to expect so little from the chain that he expresses genuine shock when his visit to the San Antonio location was actually somewhat enjoyable. “So, this Rainforest Cafe is, like, actually a cool spot to eat. That doesn’t really make sense to me. I’m supposed to be in a mall and depressed.”

King is less surprised. “Irony’s just part of modern online culture, and I think that’s why a lot of Y2K stuff is coming back and why stuff like the Rainforest Cafe is more in conversation.”

Rainforest Cafe

Robert Byrne, the director of consumer and industry insights at Technomic, Inc., a food service management consulting company, attributes some of the restaurant’s post-pandemic success to the fact that, despite its age, the Rainforest Cafe is very social media friendly. “[It’s] visual, there’s stuff happening all the time. If you think about content creation too, there’s a relatability that goes on there. So, if you are connecting with your peers, and you’re connecting via something that is nostalgic, there is that shared experience.”

There’s an element of the absurd, too. An aging restaurant posing as a jungle, teenagers play-jousting at a dinner theater, a café for dolls that have faded into irrelevance—it’s all a bit odd, and echoes the internet’s fascination with liminal spaces, largely conceptualized in photos that seem vaguely reminiscent of the ’90s but broken down, abandoned, empty.

Whether you approach experiential restaurants like Rainforest Cafe, American Girl Cafe, or Medieval Times in a purely nostalgic way, happy to once again dine amongst the animatronic gorillas, it’s hard to deny that these restaurants are—and have always been—devoted to fun.

In our very high-stakes modern era, rife with sociocultural unrest, political drama, and a pandemic, many people simultaneously crave escapism and a sense of belonging. Hopefully, you don’t have to cross state lines to find it.

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Samantha Maxwell is a contributor to Thrillist.