When I was younger, all I wanted was to stuff my face in one of three restaurants: Planet Hollywood, The Rainforest Cafe or The Hard Rock Cafe. The London stalwarts have been around for over 20 years – 49, in Hard Rock Cafe's case – yet despite my yearning for their treats, and the fact I've lived within commuting distance my entire life, I'd never stepped inside one of them in all that time.
Last week was my birthday, so it seemed right and correct that I should redress all of the above by spending an entire day blockading my arteries with each restaurant's junk food on the company dime. But I also wanted to go for another reason: to find out how – in an era of Michelin starred food trucks, dirt-cheap yet "virtual queue"-worthy pasta places and restaurants just as extra as Hard Rock, but with objectively better food – these bastions of 90s excess still look to be going strong.
Several high street chains have announced mass closures in recent years as the public has opted for delivery services like Uber Eats, or simply decided their town centre doesn't need four restaurants serving the same pasta. Meanwhile, newer chains offering something different at a lower price point have thrived – whether that's sourdough pizza chain Franco Manca, which has opened 40 stores nationwide since 2008, or the nation's favourite peri-peri spot, Nandos.
So how have these relatively expensive places survived decades of serving up the same sub-standard meaty dishes? Who's their target demographic and just how much of a relic are they? There was only one way to find out: doing a restaurant crawl for my breakfast, lunch and dinner.
First stop: Planet Hollywood
The day kicked off at "the world's one and only dining experience inspired by the glamour of Hollywood", as per Planet Hollywood's website. I'd imagine Edgware's Hollywood Cafe might have something to say about that, but I'll leave it to them to file the lawsuit.
The original Planet Hollywood launched in New York City on the 22nd of October, 1991 with the backing of Hollywood big shots Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Demi Moore and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Meanwhile, the current London location sits next to convenience chain Yo Sushi! on a road served by buses 12, 88, 159, 453, N3, N18, N97, N109 and N136. That's showbiz, baby!
Planet Hollywood currently operates seven restaurants and four hotels worldwide, having shuttered dozens of their restaurants in recent years (they had 87 in their 1990s heyday). Just like the movie business they're inspired by, this century hasn't been kind to the chain.
Planet Hollywood trades in comfort and familiarity, which means a menu featuring five burgers, four steaks, several different grilled, pasta and salad dishes, and something called a Huge Pole Hotdog. All this is served up as the restaurant's soundtrack of solid pop hits booms across a room featuring Hollywood memorabilia (a "meteor" from Superman Returns "on loan" from Kevin Spacey).
Unlike the new breed of hip, happening restaurants that don't display cultural artefacts once handled by disgraced actors, Planet Hollywood takes reservations. Though, at 11AM, this didn't seem necessary – it was just me and photographer Bob Foster on one table and a solo diner on another, soaking in the glitz and glamour of the Planet Hollywood-branded umbrellas and golf balls, available to purchase before, after or during your meal.
Pumped for my day, I ordered the Mac Attack (a burger with mac-and-cheese) and a Planet Cooler (a cocktail described as a "a super cool drink!" by Planet Hollywood).
Since it was my birthday (I was turning 28, but the card shop down the road only had a badge for 30, RIP me), our server blasted my name across the multiple widescreen TVs in the restaurant.
Here's me enjoying my special day xxx
The thing is: while it might be inspired by Hollywood, the restaurant's food isn't really on par with the Wolfgang Puck dishes handed out to guests of the Academy Awards. Despite the fact there was literally only one other person in the restaurant, the mac-and-cheese came out cold.
Still, the servers were on hand to give my dining experience that little bit of Hollywood panache – in this case, with a chocolate mug cake topped with a squirt of whipped cream. All of a sudden, I felt like I was in the Chateau Marmont, rubbing shoulders with A-list royalty.
But I wasn't. It was still just me and that other guy, who asked not to be named. When I asked him why he was there, he said, "Nostalgia."
Planet Hollywood Review
Vibe: Like dining in Hollywood's ashtray.
Food: Serviceable but cold – maybe good for a hangover, if you're also extremely wealthy (I spent £33, plus service charge).
Memorabilia: Not bad if you fucking love Bruce Willis. They have Bruce Willis' "bloodied" shirt from Die Hard With A Vengeance, "The Firefighter Jacket He Wore In The Film" from Die Hard 2, and his hand prints are even on the wall. There's also a James Bond room and bits from Rambo and Terminator. Very cool if you remember what a VHS is.
Second stop: The Rainforest Cafe
The Rainforest Cafe arrived in the mid-90s and rose to prominence in the early-2000s, when rainforests were having a moment. Back then, before people cared about the climate crisis, rainforests and jungles were just cute green places where film characters lived. Case in point: Serious Jungle, Jungle Run, Tarzan, George of the Jungle, Jumanji, The Wild Thornberrys.
These days, rainforests and jungles serve merely as reminders of how close we all are to untimely death – and it seems people aren't too keen on spending their free time being reminded of that. According to their website, The Rainforest Cafe only has 23 restaurants worldwide, down from a previous high of 32 restaurants in the US alone. Unlike Planet Hollywood and Hard Rock, which both also operate hotels, the chain doesn't seem to be trying to diversify either. It's simply there – a reminder of the weird 2000 period when kids loved frogs.
The London location – a few roads down from Planet Hollywood, just off Piccadilly Circus – kicked its doors ajar in 1997. Described as "a wild place to shop and eat", it's basically just Planet Hollywood but with less Bruce Willis and more toucan.
This approach of "Sunset Strip but make it safari" extends to the menu, too. The steak sandwich becomes a "jungle steak sandwich". The chicken grill, "aztec chicken". I go for the "lava nachos" (just nachos) and a Long Island Iced Tea.
Like me, it seemed everyone was at The Rainforest Cafe for a birthday lunch. Much like the rainstorm that activates every 17 minutes, engulfing the restaurant in flashing lights (lightning) and rain sounds, birthday singalongs are consistent. When my turn comes, I stand on my chair and conduct the audience of children, parents and servers, who are called Safari Guides.
There are also plenty of animatronic animals like gorillas and elephants that go off every few minutes, as well as an aquarium (a fish tank near the toilets). Under the backdrop of a starlit sky – our Safari Guide says the ceiling is directly modelled on the constellations seen in an African rainforest – there's as "natural" a vibe here as possible without actual animals and plants.
Still, I felt a bit weird being there. Bob and I were the only adults dining without children, and the Safari Guides looked upon us with endearment. I asked them if they ever have people like me in there, celebrating their 30th birthdays. They smiled and say no, but that it was nice to have us.
The Rainforest Cafe Review
Vibe: Like dining on the set of a children's TV show.
Food: Though similar to Planet Hollywood, the menu is tighter and a little more mellow. It felt like a slight lean into the palettes of middle class wellness parents who might have a cheat day there with their children.
Memorabilia: Just lots of animals?
Third stop: The Hard Rock Cafe
Dinnertime, and our third and final stop. The prized jewel in the novelty restaurant crown, The Hard Rock Cafe is a tour de force. They have 184 cafes worldwide, in 74 countries, offering everything from "pitch-perfect live entertainment" at Hard Rock Cafe Jakarta to somewhere to grab a bite before a flight at Hard Rock Cafe Malta. They also have a rockin' fan community.
Scott Northup, 49, loves the place so much he turned his home in Michigan into an unofficial Hard Rock Cafe – the Hard Rock Redford – complete with Prince and Bowie merchandise. He's not alone in his fandom-like love of the brand, either: there are plenty of Hard Rockers worldwide who list the cafes they've visited and the pins they've collected on wholesome, Geocity-like webpages.
Jan-Philipp Scherwat, from Germany, told me he's visited 26 different Hard Rock locations. His favourite is the Montego Bay location in Jamaica ("they have a pool and private beach"). First visiting the Hard Rock Cafe in Cape Town when he was eight years old, now – aged 30 – he's keen to catch-up with some of the Hard Rock fandom's big boys (one person he met has visited 157 locations).
Unlike the other two restaurants, The Hard Rock looks to be flying. Bought by the Seminole Indian Tribe of Florida in 2007 for $965 million, they operate over 170 locations worldwide, with several casino, hotel and Live! Concert venues under their belt. It seems old Hollywood = uncool. Rainforest = uncool. But Pearl Jam memorabilia = ... cool?
Inside the London Piccadilly Circus location, there's definitely an air of sophistication lacking in the other spots. Or at least a vibe that's as refined as you can get surrounded by Buffalo sliders and "One Night in Bangkok Spicy Shrimp™".
The walls feature items owned by varying levels of rock'n'roll greats (David Bowie's outfit from his iconic Midnight Special; Lady Gaga's leather boots… worn in Newcastle; Robbie Williams' suit; Amy Winehouse's iconic white vest; something of Rita Ora's).
I order the Sparkling Blue Hawiian ("A tropical American classic invented in Hawaii in 1957!"), classic buffalo wings and that famous One Night In Bangkok Spicy Shrimp™, which you might recognise from the Abba Men (?) concept album and subsequent musical, Chess (me neither).
There are no birthday singalongs or standing on table japes here – it's far too rock'n'roll for that.
The in-store TVs playing Nada Surf and LCD Soundsystem songs may seem at odds with the authentic rock vibe, but the servers, it seemed, were not, ignoring my big birthday badge with cool detachment.
I also got a Hot Fudge Brownie Sundae and I loved it.
Hard Rock Cafe Review
Vibe: Exactly how I imagined dining in Piccadilly Circus surrounded by a load of old guitars to feel.
Food: Not actually that bad? This was the best of the bunch
Memorabilia: Also pretty good, in fairness.
Final pondering: so what’s the deal?
For me, both Planet Hollywood and The Rainforest Cafe were fairly depressing. Planet Hollywood, because no one was there; The Rainforest Cafe, because I am no longer a child. Dining in them felt a little like entering a small, hidden part in a rundown theme park – the animatronics still grinding away, the memorabilia in need of a lick of paint, but still going nonetheless.
However, I was surprised by the Hard Rock Cafe. As lifelong fan Scott told me, the experience is less about dining and more about visiting a rock'n'roll museum: "It's just normal bar food… I'm not there to eat, I'm there to see the memorabilia."
In answer to the question I posed – how have these places survived? – I suppose the answer is that two-thirds of them kind of haven't, at least globally. Planet Hollywood feels very much on its last legs, while The Rainforest Cafe can rely on the custom of seven-year-olds to keep them chugging along.
While definitely still a relic, it feels like The Hard Rock Cafe succeeds where the others are failing because they offer an experience you're not going to get anywhere else – even if that experience essentially boils down to slamming a cocktail next to a guitar once touched by Jimi Hendrix. The countless tourists I spoke to there – some who were pre-gaming before seeing Madonna; others who were just on holiday from the Netherlands – said as much between mouthfuls of food.
Would I dine at the Hard Rock again? Maybe. Maybe not. I left the day feeling full and very sick. What a wild ride it had been.
I clutched my balloon tight and then released it into the air. Another year older.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.