America's Strangest Restaurants
“I am probably the only restaurateur in the entire world who is unapologetically telling you that my food is bad for you, and that you should stay away from it,” Heart Attack Grill’s Jon Basso recently said after one of his regulars suffered (you guessed it) a massive heart attack on his post-meal bus ride home.
With waitresses dressed as sexy nurses and a Guinness World Record for “Most Calorific Burger,” this Las Vegas attraction is surely an only-in-America experience. But in a country that birthed the bloomin’ onion, it’s not the only weird eatery America has to offer. Strange restaurants abound from coast to coast, from a toilet-themed café in the suburbs of Los Angeles to ninja villages in New York City and an actual cave in the Midwest.
“Part of the appeal of a themed or a weird restaurant is that it may not live or die based on how good the food is,” explains Doug Kirby, author of Roadside America, a byway bible to America’s strangest pit stops. “I hear a lot of locals say they would never go to the nearby weird restaurant, but they’d totally take whoever was visiting from out of town.”
On your next trip, here’s where to let your foodie freak flag fly.
The Cave, Richland, MO
If you’ve always wondered what it’d be like to dine like Batman (you know, in a cave), this 250-seat restaurant overlooking the Gasconade River is for you. Work up an appetite for the American steakhouse menu—stuffed mushrooms, fried pickles, jalapeño poppers, breaded mac ‘n’ cheese—with a pre-meal canoe session or classic Missouri float trip. For a fun dining companion/photo op, request a table next to the crude mountain lion taxidermy. thecaverestaurantandresort.com
What to Eat: A “Boulder Cut” (24 oz.) of prime beef, Fridays and Saturdays.
Ninja, New York City
While we can’t attest to the historical accuracy of this feudal-era Japanese mountain village inhabited exclusively by ninjas (and one roaming ninja magician), it’s certainly a trip—and one you don’t have to leave lower Manhattan to take. (Erstwhile New York Times critic Frank Bruni compared it to a Saturday Night Live skit in his epic, hilarious takedown.) Once you’ve been guided across twee bridges and around fake boulders to your table, costume-clad ninja servers swoop in to serve you sushi and steak and plenty of sake. ninjanewyork.com
What to Eat: Katana signature dish for two (Black Angus teriyaki steak with risotto and king crab topped with mango and cheese).
Harvey Washbangers, College Station, TX
Need clean clothes and a bite to eat? There’s at least one place on the planet where that combo doesn’t involve a vending machine: Aggieland’s locally famous laundromat-cum-restaurant. Start your cycle then watch the reader board for it to finish. The made-from-scratch pub grub menu includes signature Banger burgers, chili, Buffalo wings, and chorizo queso, plus one of the area’s best selections of Texas craft microbrews, making chore night an easy wash, nosh, and slosh. washbangers.com
What to Eat: Frito Pie Burger with fries.
Bors Hede Inne, Carnation, WA
Books are great, but given the option, wouldn’t you rather eat your history lesson? As centerpiece to the Camlann Medieval Village, a living-history museum portraying an English village circa 1376, the Bors Hede Inne (that would be “Boar’s Head Inn” for those not inclined toward Ye Olde English) offers troubadour waiters in period costume and a roaring fire, as well as actual 14th-century recipes like fenberry pye (pork, chicken, and cranberries) and sanc dragon (chicken in a cinnamon and almond sauce). Sure beats a Ren Faire turkey leg. camlann.org
What to Eat: Coudre in temp de noir (salmon in a hazelnut sauce).
Safe House, Milwaukee
The building’s placard may say International Exports, Ltd., but insiders know that behind the innocuous alleyway façade is a secret refuge for hungry spies and the people who love them—provided you have the password. (Shhh: check the FAQ online.) There are secret doors and covert passageways, shoe telephones and other spy gadgetry, plus in-character Cold War waiters doling out brandy-spiked Brown-Eyed Woman and batter-dipped cheddar curds. safe-house.com
What to Eat: The Sean Connery (flame-broiled steak with onion rings and baked potato).
Fritz’s Railroad Restaurant, Kansas City, MO
You don’t necessarily have to be a train enthusiast or a child to enjoy KC’s choo-choo-themed restaurant—though it might help. Order your food via tableside telephone, and eventually, a single toy train engine nicknamed the Skat Kat delivers the goods on overhead tracks, lowering burgers and fries, salads, and shakes to tables below. This classic family-owned diner has been chugging along steadily since 1954. fritzskc.com
What to Eat: Grilled chicken sandwich with a cherry limeade.
Maid Café, New York City
Though this Chinatown import serves up beef bowls, bubble tea, and crêpes, it’s not what’s on the menu that attracts otaku (fanboy) tourists and middle-aged men, it’s who’s serving it—adolescent-looking (and seeming) female servers in frilly bubblegum-colored maid outfits—although minus the doting, over-the-top service of the Japanese originals. Nobody is calling anybody “master” here. Knowledge of anime and other aspects of Japanese culture isn’t necessary, but it may help the fantasy along. maidcafeny.com
What to Eat: Chicken curry and matcha green tea cheesecake.
Heart Attack Grill, Las Vegas
At this kitsch factory’s ode to gluttony, customers get their blood pressure checked by servers in nurse outfits before ordering diner staples on steroids, like crispy flatliner fries and a quadruple-bypass burger (four patties at a whopping 9,982 calories). Good thing the wine is served in IV bags. Hospital gowns and plastic ID wristbands add to the fun, plus a stern warning to clean your plate or risk a public spanking—and they’re serious. What’s that they say about Vegas? heartattackgrill.com
What to Eat: Double-bypass burger with a butterfat chocolate shake, 40-oz. Olde English, and no-filter cigarettes.
Magic Restroom Café, Los Angeles
Inspired by Taipei’s bathroom-themed Modern Toilet chain of restaurants—and apparently the imagination of an eight-year-old boy—Magic Restroom Café is toilet humor at its gag-inducing finest. Diners eat while sitting on actual porcelain thrones (thankfully nonworking) with typical Taiwanese dishes served up in miniature ceramic toilet bowls. Which puts that beef stew and curry rice into an entirely different, not so savory, perspective. 18558 Gale Ave., City of Industry, CA; (626) 664-3766; facebook.com/MagicRestroomCafe
What to Eat: Chocolate ice cream (or if you can read the Chinese characters, “black poo toilet ice cream”).
Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar, San Francisco
Established in 1945 inside Nob Hill’s plush Fairmont Hotel, this San Francisco institution was doing tiki back before it was kitsch. Grab a table next to the lagoon underneath a thatched roof, and sip a mai tai out of a coconut or a three-rum zombie in a ceramic tiki god tumbler while munching on Pacific Rim Asian cuisine. With live music played from a floating stage and regular “rain storms,” the only thing missing is Don Ho’s ghost.
What to Eat: The Quintessential “Pu Pu” Platter.
The Airplane Restaurant, Colorado Springs, CO
Putting the diner in airplane dining, this Colorado Springs landmark is on a mission, code name: delicious. Owners gutted a decommissioned 1953 Boeing KC-97 military tanker to make room for booths and a bar, decorating it and the main restaurant spaces with tons of aviation memorabilia. Naturally, the menu is loaded with aviation puns and references as well, such as the Philly Flyer sandwich and Air Tower nachos. solosrestaurant.com
What to Eat: Rueben von Crashed sandwich with a side of coleslaw.
Mammy’s Cupboard, Natchez, MS
Built in 1940, the 28-foot-tall statue-cum-restaurant of a big-skirted African American woman in one of the oldest cities on the Mississippi River isn’t exactly a homage to political correctness—though her skin was painted a lighter shade during the civil rights movement. The menu is loaded with down-home southern deliciousness, including chicken pot pie, red beans and rice, and lemon meringue pie. Open for lunch. 555 U.S. 61, Natchez, MS, 601-445-8957
What to Eat: Beef soup and any of the homemade pies.
Twin Creeks Café, Fort Worth, TX
Shopping for a car can build up quite a hunger. So it’s a good thing that the folks at Frank Kent Honda installed a full-fledged restaurant inside the dealership. Test-drive a Civic and then test-drive the burger, which is a “secret” blend of New York strip steak and never-frozen beef, plus cheddar cheese grilled right in. And at $7, there’s no sticker shock. twincreekscafe.com
What to Eat: “OMG” Burger on a jalapeño bun.
With locations in San Francisco and Santa Monica, CA, plus special events in Dallas, San Diego, and New York, Opaque challenges diners to a three-course prix fixe meal—with wine—served in pitch blackness by blind/visually impaired waiters. The appeal? Without your sense of sight, you can better appreciate food’s other sensory experiences: taste, texture, smell, and even sound. Just hope you’re not afraid of the dark. darkdining.com
What to Eat: Grilled salmon with coconut curry.