They say escapism isn't the answer. They say running away can defer, but not deny your very real problems. They say unicorns aren't real.
They say a lot of things. But given the fact that the country where I was born currently appears to be on a fast-track into the fiery abyss and the rest of the world seems poised to follow suit, I'm about ready to say "fuck it" and start sprinting. Which is why one Saturday afternoon, I find myself with two friends on a side-street of Bangkok as far away from reality as humanly possible.
The Unicorn Cafe is at once everything you might imagine and somehow so much less. Unlike the city's Siberian husky cafe, cat cafes (yes, plural), and ethically dubious fox cafe, there are no actual mythical equines at this spot. Until scientists figure out how to genetically graft a narwhal horn onto some poor Shetland, guests will have to be content with being trapped inside Lisa Frank's personal acid trip.
Plastic chandeliers dangle from a ceiling covered in the same swirling, rainbow-hued paper that decorates the walls. All other horizontal surfaces are a queasy shade of Pepto-Bismol and crawling with more bejeweled My Little Ponies than my six-year-old self could have handled. Incongruously, a lone Barbie, her platinum locks teased into an 80s-style cyclone, rides atop one of the plastic steeds. Even the security cameras, of which there are many, are color-coordinated and on-brand.
None of this seems to deter anyone. When we stroll in, the joint is packed with a mix of Thai and international selfie-snappers. They're sipping luridly colored potions with names like "Unicorn Blood" or posing on piles of stuffed animals. More than half have donned unicorn onesies, as if to show those naysayers who might question the existence of magical beings who's boss.
Like a shabbier version of Tokyo's Kawaii Monster Cafe in Harajuku, the Unicorn Cafe is a glittering example of what happens when Instagram spawns a restaurant. Much has been said about chefs pandering to social media, often to the detriment of their dishes, and this particular piece of insanity might just be the trend's logical conclusion. Incredibly, it works. Despite my one friend's insistence that, surely, this was a fly-by-night fad that would be gone by next week, the cafe has been doing a brisk business since 2012. Its Facebook page currently has more than 173,000 likes. Either we're looking at a freakish anomaly here or the beginnings of a dystopian dining future I don't want to contemplate.
But I digress. As US citizens, the three of us had endured a rough couple weeks trying to explain to every other nationality we encountered what was going on. We were tired. We were bewildered. We were sick of being mad as hell and not wanting to take it anymore. We wanted some goddamn magic back in our cynical little lives.
"I'm feeling pretty confused right now," my one friend says after our initial disorientation subsides. "But I feel like this whole setup goes weirdly well with my PMS."
Ostensibly, one comes to this place to order food, so after waiting for some of the horde to disperse, we grab seats and do exactly that. Although it would make sense with the age of most of the nostalgia-prone clientele—we only see one actual child during our visit and she appears less-than-enchanted—the restaurant does not serve booze. We opt for a wedge of crepe cake, spaghetti carbonara, waffles, and toast, a curiously popular dessert in Bangkok consisting of a giant cube of white bread.
The crepe cake is innocuous enough, a saccharine slice of fluff topped in a pastel layer of marshmallowy frosting with the texture and consistency of styrofoam. Waffles fare somewhat better, despite the fact that the accompanying scoops of ice cream refused to melt.
"Wait, is this a candle?" my friend asks, suddenly ashen. She's gnawing away on the lilac "horn" that came on top of the dessert. Most of the dishes, including the burger, come with a horn. "Why am I still eating this? It doesn't taste like I'm supposed to be eating this."
The same could be said of the grisly specimen that follows. Composed of electric pink, purple, and blue noodles my friend likens to "intestinal parasites" and topped with a cream sauce that looked more or less how I imagine unicorn vomit might, it is enough to momentarily silence our table. We watch in mutual horror as the dish congeals before our eyes, before taking a tenuous forkful.
"I definitely taste the chemicals," one of my friends says. The other spits out a chunk of what might be bacon.
"I'm not quite sure where the unicorn component of this one is. I'm really hoping it's not the meat."
Finally, the pièce de résistance arrives in the form of half a loaf of bread crowned with another ambiguously edible horn and a scoop of heat-resistant ice cream. It smells like a bottle of Aunt Jemima syrup. "It just tastes like white bread with butter," my friend offers tentatively. "Butter, in all fairness, is amazing."
While it isn't exactly good, we somehow have a hard time not eating it. The outside is all sugary-buttery guilty-pleasure goodness, but the interior is a spongy mass of dough tasting of air and nothing. Each mouthful starts with high hopes and ends in disappointment. There's probably a metaphor in there somewhere.
Feeling physically ill, we pay the dead-eyed staff and decide to call it a night. Our blood glucose levels have already spiked and crashed. One of my friends has her head in her lap. We're starting to notice details like the missing leg on one of the toy ponies, or the Western couple in the corner chewing silently without shifting their unblinking gaze from their smartphones. So we run out of our candy-colored nightmare and never look back. I'm not sure I'm ready for reality just yet, but it looks like I have to find my next dose of escapism somewhere else.