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Pouring One Out for My Gay Childhood at Rainforest Cafe

I spent a Margarilla-fueled afternoon with a howling animatronic gorilla — and ended up learning a bit about myself. How was your weekend?

My year started off on a somber note. Woodfield Mall, in the Chicago suburbs where I grew up, closed its 15,000-square-foot Rainforest Cafe restaurant to make way for a Peppa Pig play arena.

While Peppa is an undisputed queer icon, losing Rainforest Cafe hurts. It’s yet another somber reminder that I’m growing up. As a kid, I demanded my family go to the Rainforest for each birthday dinner. The trumpeting elephants, sparkling branches and colorful live birds enchanted me. When I was just starting to question my sexuality, Rainforest Cafe was the beautiful chaos I craved in the orderly, homogenous suburbs.

I’m no longer that insecure, naive kid, but I’m still protecting him. If a 10-year-old who feels overwhelmingly different in Grayslake, Illinois, doesn’t have Rainforest Cafe, what do they have? And why do uninspired, oppressively straight fashion brands like Buckle and bland restaurants like Ruby Tuesday get to stay open in malls across America, while my campy, disorderly and attention-seeking Rainforest Cafe closes?

Rainforest Cafe now operates 22 locations worldwide, down from 27 in 2016. At its peak in 1998, each location made $8 million a year. The truth is, though, chain stores and restaurants aren’t doing so hot. Malls are dying, and their tenants can’t afford rent. Does this portend a slow, painful demise for Chuck E. Cheese, Kahunaville and the other large themed chain restaurants that represented a time when capitalist excess and cultural fetishization were cool and fun?

“We overbuilt it at Woodfield Mall for sure,” Steven Schussler, founder of Rainforest Cafe, tells MEL. In 2000, he sold his baby to Landry’s, Inc., the company that also owns Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and McCormick & Schmick’s.

Schussler recognizes that existing Rainforest locations are in a precarious spot. You can’t just downsize a Rainforest Cafe. “I wouldn’t open up in a traditional mall anymore, Schussler says. “We need a lot of volume to pay for the cost of all the super stuff that we put in our restaurants” — like the animatronic Tracy Tree, Rastafarian lion T-shirts and Mongoose Mai Tais — “and that’s becoming more difficult as time goes on.”

With my birthday coming up and Rainforest Cafe on my mind, I decided to see if any gems still remain in my childhood jungle. So I took the two-hour journey by train from Brooklyn to Edison, New Jersey.

Here we go.

12:30 p.m.: I enter the Menlo Park Mall and immediately see a towering, concrete brown tree and green leaves burst out into the beige, mundane mall. I could recognize this sight any day: Rainforest Cafe.

There’s a line in front of a boulder where a hostess sits perched, addressing a growing line. “Royals” by Lorde is playing. My smile quickly fades after I overhear the host say there’s a two-hour wait. Luckily for me, as a solo diner, I’m seated immediately in a notably empty dining room.

12:40 p.m.: Just as I begin to peruse the three menus (why so many?), there’s a high-pitched grunt behind me. I look over to see an animatronic gorilla. I name him Chad. He’s my first prey in the jungle.

12:44 p.m.: My server, a soft-spoken woman in a forest green polo with several black tattoos, comes to take my order. Her name is Brenda, and she speaks in a droll tone. I ask her what she likes on the kids’ menu. I’ve ventured two hours to get to Rainforest Cafe to reconnect with my childhood. I’m ordering off the kids’ menu.

It’s a three-step process to pick a kids’ meal: entree, side and drink. An apple icon denotes healthy items verified by the National Restaurant Association and Healthy Dining. Brenda tells me to get the shrimpkins basket — popcorn shrimp and dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets. “I don’t know why, I just like ’em,” she says. I take her word and add on mac and cheese and a Capri Sun. None of these items has an apple icon.

12:55 p.m.: Gorilla Chad won’t shut the fuck up. Behind him, a monkey howls. Chad and Brad are now my lunchtime nemeses. No way will I let them have more fun than me.

Brenda will later tell me there’s a challenge on the kids’ menu to find all the animals by name in the restaurant. This explains why moms are walking around with their daughters and taking photos with every asshole robot primate. Strangely, I see few dads in the restaurant.

1:00 p.m.: Bright white lights are flashing, Chad and Brad are hollering at the top of their lungs and kids are looking terrified. It’s the first storm. Every 30 minutes, a pyrotechnic storm occurs. It’s just a light show with screaming animals. The novelty quickly wears off once you see the dust gathering on the toucan perched adjacent to me.

My drink arrives, a Capri Sun. I rip off the plastic straw glued to the pouching, puncture the designated hole and take a sip as “Wide Awake” by Katy Perry blares. Immediately, I’m back at a middle school basketball game in a hand-me-down St. Gilbert’s Rebels jersey, asking my dad if we can finally leave. Perry’s seminal 2010 album Teenage Dream came out when I was 12. Though “Wide Awake” dropped two years later on her album reissue, old-school Perry is the album that made me gay. On a cold Sunday afternoon in an unassuming New Jersey suburb, drinking a juice box at Rainforest Cafe, I’m once again anxious Little Joe.

1:12 p.m.: When I speak with Schussler a few days after my visit, he repeatedly praises the Rainforest Cafe food. “A lot of foodies out there think that if you have something that’s theatrical, you can’t possibly also have great food. That’s the biggest farce in the world,” he says.

Sadly, the food I’m eating is terrible. My dad made better shrimp balls and heated up dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets from the freezer. With every dinosaur whose head I bite off, my childhood become one shade more tainted.

The only highlight is the outsourced Capri Sun. What would a Capri Sun taste like with vodka, the only drink? Shall I go on Shark Tank and pitch hard juice boxes as the next college drinking trend? I’ll make one at home and see.

1:25 p.m.: The massive space is still nearly empty. I ask Brenda why the tables are empty if there’s a two-hour wait. She said the kitchen’s overstaffed because of a children’s party.

What is it like working at Rainforest Cafe? “It’s all right,” she says. “When I went here, they had fish.” I hadn’t realized the aquarium framing the entrance was empty. “They brought them to another location, I guess,” Brenda explains. “They were too hard to maintain.”

After Schussler sold Rainforest Cafe, I learn, Landry’s reportedly phased out live tropical birds to save $100,000 a year.

Original Rainforest Cafe curator Debbie Goodrich, known as the Parrot Lady, told Atlas Obscura losing the birds was the beginning of the end for the brand. “To me, it’s dead [now]. It’s no longer Rainforest Cafe the way Steve saw it.” Schussler, a polite Minnesotan, won’t condemn Landry’s, but there is a hesitation in his voice when I ask how they’ve treated his creation. “Landry’s, you know, God bless,” he says. “They’re doing a hell of a job.”

1:28 p.m.: Realizing I’m still hungover from drinking the night before, I decide to try a hair of the dog and order the Panama Punch. Brenda says it’s one of the booziest drinks. But then, in the distance, I see a waiter drop off two large, flashing cups — clearly way more fun than what I ordered. Et tu, Brenda?

1:30 p.m.: Across the room, a rogue menu is thrown to the floor by an upset child. This is the drama I came for.

1:35 p.m.: Rainforest Cafe clearly employs some gay who follows me on Twitter, because “Magnets” by Disclosure featuring Lorde pops on the stereo, followed by “If I Could Change Your Mind” by Haim. An hour in the jungle and I’m ready to be Jane. Where is my Tarzan?

1:53 p.m.: I spot some teens, clad in polyester pullovers and leggings. They’re not Euphoria teens, but we will still stan. Looking over at the table next to me, a mom is coloring. Her son is watching a show on an iPhone. They’re not speaking.

1:58 p.m.: Cha-Cha the tree frog is Rainforest Cafe’s mascot, taking photos with excited kids. I ask Brenda for a photo with Cha-Cha.

2:15 p.m.: Brenda returns, saying Cha-Cha is undressed and unavailable to take a photo. Unacceptable, Brenda. I take my last Capri Sun sip and go back to coloring.

2:20 p.m.: My butt is going numb, so I walk to the gift shop by the entrance. Every Rainforest Cafe has a gift shop, which Schussler says is crucial to the concept. “We don’t call our restaurants ‘restaurants’ anymore. We build an attraction that happens to have a restaurant and a retail store,” he says.

The gift shop

They sell T-shirts, plush animals, gadgets and shitty plastic plates that are two for $6 or four for $10. I so love a bargain. There’s only one book for sale. It’s Landry’s CEO Tilman Fertitta’s memoir placed on the register.

The company says it offers education programs on animal conservation. Schlesser says he founded Rainforest Cafe in part as a response to deforestation, but nowhere in the restaurant or line is there easy-to-locate information about these programs. It’s unclear how hulking restaurants full of plastic toys, wooden animals and meat-based dishes are doing anything to save the planet.

2:30 p.m.: I text my mom what she thought of having to take 8-year-old me to the Rainforest in 2005. “We were in for very average food, but we could get a drink. So that was good. We only went because it was your favorite restaurant.”

2:30 p.m.: I repair my relationship with Brenda. She tells me she’s lived in suburban New Jersey her entire life and used to come to this exact Rainforest Cafe as a kid. “It’s changed. Not like what it was,” she says. An unspoken bond is formed as Brad the monkey howls.

2:40 p.m.: My Awesome Appetizer Adventure (for three) platter I ordered (for one) arrives 20 minutes later. Here’s each appetizer, ranked by adventure-time awesomeness:

  1. Chimi-Cha-Chas
  2. Spinach & Artichoke Dip
  3. Cheese Sticks. (T.G.I Friday’s could never)
  4. Guac (Chipotle could)
  5. Chicken strips

2:45 p.m.: The more I eat, the less awesome it feels. At least I’ll have leftovers to get me through the week.

3:10 p.m.: The facade of fun is fading and I’m overstuffed on oily foods. I ask Brenda for the check, while I look around and realize there are several older couples here by themselves. Nothing like a date in the dimly lit mall restaurant. She tells me there’s a good deal of adults and “ratchet teens” who come in each day.

3:30 p.m.: Just as I’m getting ready to leave, I overhear a young woman say to her two friends, “I don’t want a fucking birthday sash, and I don’t want to pregame with a bunch of people I don’t know.” My jaw drops. Who is this truth-telling icon?

I walk over to her, explain myself and we begin chatting. Shilpa Menon is a junior at Rutgers University; she dragged her two friends Maria and Alexa here to celebrate her upcoming 22nd birthday. Why are cool college kids here?

“I just, like, really wanted a cup-o-dirt dessert I used to have as a kid here,” Menon says. On the menu, it’s called Lava Mud. Menon and Alexa both say they came to the Rainforest as kids.

Does it hold up a decade later? “It looks exactly how it looked when I was 6,” Alexa says. Will she come again? “It’s definitely not going to be an ‘often’ thing, but maybe if it’s still around when I have children…”

3:30 p.m.: I go get my free souvenir Rainforest Cafe class and leave the jungle with my childhood (mostly) intact.

Rainforest Cafe isn’t worth the money — the food is as bad as the gifts are chintzy. But there’s something to be said for a suburban environment that takes up too much space and, instead of apologizing for its presence, embraces the exuberance. At 12, I just wanted to get through my days undetected. Rainforest Cafe let me hide under its larger-than-life mushroom cap until I was ready to come out and fly with the colorful feathered birds.

And now it’s time to say goodbye.

I made it home to Brooklyn feeling disgusting. I will not be having sex for a week. I probably won’t be coming back to the Rainforest anytime soon, either. But the memories — and, let’s be honest, these cold chicken strips — will last me a lifetime.