"My tongue has a bone in it," remarked Caitie, chewing suspiciously on what some unfortunate duck had once used to taste. "I think I prefer the texture of the jellyfish," said her older brother Liam. I sorted with my chopsticks through the plated pile of shiny meat in search of those translucent, salty strips. Finding one, I dipped a jelly in chili sauce and plucked it into my mouth. I agreed with Liam. The jellyfish beat the tongue by a long shot.
Around us at the pan-Asian Royal Dragon restaurant in Bangkok, the night air was thick with the distinct melancholy of an aging Hercules past his prime. There, at what was once the world's largest restaurant (in 1992, according to Guinness, with a purported seat capacity of 5,000 people), the rollerblade-bound waiters glided with a bit less enthusiasm than they used to.
"Had been here 20 years ago and nothing has changed, not even the decor, was good then but now……….[sic] there was nobody there," wrote one bewildered TripAdvisor reviewer.
Time has been unkind to the Royal Dragon. Every one of the restaurant's roughly 1,200 employees seemed downright depressed. On a weekday night, waiters and waitresses sat in dark corners or at empty tables with headphones in, looking as bored as the lobsters and groupers unknowingly awaiting their makers inside their watery holding cells. The chefs, gathered in a long kitchen near the entrance, appeared equally uninspired.
In our area, the middle-aged manager moved as if in a dark haze, filling and adding ice to our beer glasses with what seemed a great, painful difficulty. His co-workers, a posse of prim waitresses, were hostile to our requests, which were simple ones: "Three more beers?" "What time does the martial arts show start?" "How is the horseshoe crab prepared?"
We were seated in a courtyard rimmed by gaudy, medieval-style Chinese gazebos, some of which housed private dinner and karaoke parties (one online reviewer alleged seeing rats in these rooms). Narrow canals with lily pads lined the courtyard. On the far side, past the stage, was the "Ten Thousand Years Tower," seven stories tall and twinkling with white lights. Mulan-esque ballads blared throughout the courtyard. They were fine surrounds but we were lonely.
In our little area, there were only two other tables occupied. The rest were deserted and stacked with chairs, the saddening effect of which was amplified by the sheer amount of emptiness. When we asked to change tables to a tented area filled with patrons farther in the courtyard filled, one of the waitresses denied us. "Cannot," she said, without explanation.
"We want to be closer to the stage," pleaded Liam. It was empty now but the stage lights were on and the manager had assured us 20 minutes earlier that the show was about to start. "Private," the waitress muttered and that was that. She drifted off to tend the empty tables away from us and we were alone in this 16,000-square-meter restaurant.
Measurements are important at the Royal Dragon. A brochure at the front desk, situated near a giant plaque announcing its former Guinness Book of World Records status, listed the noteworthy statistics. The terraces could "accommodate 100, 300, 500 guests and can smoke in this area" (we were not allowed to smoke there). The karaoke rooms could hold "10, 40, 50, 100, 150, 250, and 500 guesses [sic]." Each floor of the tower could keep 120 guests (we were denied entry). The restaurant also boasted 17,282 fork and spoon pairs, 24,500 plates, 322 cooks, 541 attendants, and the ability to produce 3,000 food items per hour. And there was also the theatrics, which seemed like the real draw of the place.
"We have unique style of serving that you have never experienced before, such as serving by walking on water, flying on the sky, and skating for speedy service and save time," read the brochure.
Sure enough, halfway through our meal, just after the Peking duck (which was fantastic) had arrived, an announcement came over the PA, first in Thai, then Chinese, then English.
"Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the Royal Dragon restaurant, the largest restaurant in the world!" (Another restaurant, Bawabet Dimashq in Damascus, was later named the world's largest restaurant, but it has reportedly closed.)
Suddenly, several costumed women appeared on the stage. We were squinting to see. They spun in slow circles. It was a traditional Thai dance of some kind, ancient, atmospheric, and on the Royal Dragon stage performed with all the gusto of a drowsy preschool class. One TripAdviser review described it aptly: "The cultural show consisted of 4 girls moving their hands to the rhythm of cats howling." Or tongueless-duck quacks, I thought.
Suddenly, a piece of dramatic music came over the PA. From the far side of the restaurant there emerged a peculiar sight, a yellow dot growing rapidly in size and speed. It was swiftly soaring through the air, heading straight toward our humble eating area.
The dot came into view and became a man. He was dressed in robes the color of carnival mustard. He was navigating the great length of the Royal Dragon as a character would in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with gravity-defying poise and grace. But it was a trick. He was connected by wire to a zipline that ran the length of the restaurant. With one hand he held a flaming hot-pot as he flew, completely stone-faced.
The flyer soared over a lotus pond, touched down on a stone terrace, disposed of his fiery bounty to a rollerblading waiter, and repeated his flight in reverse, without a word or even a grin. Nobody applauded (though there were not many to do so), except for the three of us, a trio of shrieking farangs full of jellyfish and half-digested taste buds.
"That man has the best job I've seen of anyone in all of Bangkok," quipped Caitie, to mutual agreement. He would appear twice more over the course of our night. But all would end soon.
When we returned to our table after the soaring banana, most of the lights had been shut off throughout the restaurant. Things quickly acquired a deserted, post-Apocalyptic vibe, like we were hanging around in a cursed town. Ominous clouds had collected overhead and lightning was flashing in the near distance. "Better get a taxi before the rain starts," said Liam. We were happy to go.
After finishing our beers, we paid the bill and made our way to the 13,372-square-meter parking lot. It was empty. The hostess, a shining light of cheeriness at the Royal Dragon, called us a taxi. We waited by the Guinness plaque. I took a photo of Caitie and Liam in front of it. They didn't smile. Our taxi arrived as soon as the rain started. I took one last look at the restaurant and we sped away.