Taste for the unusual

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 April, 2007, 12:00am

Food is served, but you can't see it. The wine is ready, but pouring it into your glass is a challenge. And don't even think about leaving the table on your own. Such is the scene at Beijing's latest dining hot spot.

Whale Inside, a restaurant where customers eat in complete darkness, borrows a concept invented in Zurich that spread to other parts of Europe and the US. Since it opened last Christmas, the 88-seat establishment in the Jianwai Soho business district has been booked solid at night and most lunch times although its set meals of 138 and 158 yuan are pricey by Beijing standards.

Manager He Zaijian is delighted his restaurant is catching the fancy of the nouveau riche who are increasingly alert to new trends. 'Many wealthy Chinese are keen to try new things,' He says. 'They're afraid of being labelled 'outdated'. Eating out [has become] a lifestyle statement, so the dining environment is becoming more and more important.'

The spread of theme restaurants on the mainland reflects this new emphasis on setting and atmosphere, whether romantic, sinister, nostalgic or silly fun. Since last August, for example, Shenzhen patrons have had the added choice of dining at an eatery with a toilet theme (food is served in containers shaped like toilet bowls). And last month, a restaurant opened in Chengdu touting the aphrodisiac qualities of its dishes.

But restaurants rely on gimmicks and novelty value at their peril. A case in point is Chain Cool, an eatery that opened six years ago featuring a prison theme and northeastern cuisine. The decor leaned towards steel bars and manacles, with staff dressed in black-and-white prison stripes. Although popular during its first two years, business has slipped. 'Once the novelty wears off, diners won't come again,' says Yan Guoping, a former manager.

The owners suspended operations for a year and reopened after renovations last year as an ordinary hot-pot restaurant. But it's still struggling.

'There's fierce competition among mid-range restaurants here,' says Yan. 'Everyone wants to create something unusual to attract customers, and pay more attention to the environment than the food. But I've learned that food and service are as important as the environment.'

The restaurants' problems are aggravated by widespread imitation. Not long after Whale Inside opened, similar establishments popped up in other cities, including Dalian (the Dalian operation even copied its logo), while a Hong Kong restaurant used the concept for theme nights.

Indeed, some customers were visiting Whale Inside expressly to see whether they could copy its success. Lan Qian, a thirtysomething entrepreneur, says she hopes to open a similar restaurant in her home town of Guilin in Guangxi province. 'The interior design looks simple,' she says. 'You just black out the windows. I don't think it's difficult [to start a similar one].'

Although the restaurant has applied for copyright, He says it's hard to crack down on offenders. 'Intellectual property is poorly protected here,' he says. 'The definition for plagiarism is too vague.'

But one theme seems to have more staying power in an otherwise fickle business: nostalgia. Since the mid-1990s, a number of restaurants in the capital have done a booming business by focusing on a Cultural Revolution theme.

Red Classics, on the eastern end of the fifth ring road, is among them. Despite its out-of-the-way location, the restaurant has attracted a steady stream of diners since opening 18 months ago. Most patrons are middle-aged people who experienced the political upheavals that gripped the mainland between 1966 and 1976, and are keen to reminisce about the era.

The restaurants are usually decorated with Mao-era memorabilia including badges, propaganda posters and photos. Menus are mostly made up of dishes from the northeast, especially simple fare such as steamed sorghum buns and cornmeal porridge, which were common during those lean years.

At Red Classics, waiters and waitresses are dressed as Red Guards and provide entertainment by performing model plays and singing revolutionary songs. Diners often join in the chorus.

'I like this place. It reminds me of my days in Inner Mongolia as a young intellectual,' says Shan Jingyi, a 55-year-old Beijing native who spent nine years in the autonomous region as part of the nationwide movement when millions of urban youths were sent to the countryside to help in production and to be re-educated.

'The decorations, the songs and dances are all familiar. Although life was hard there, it was the best time of my youth,' she says. 'I'm here looking for my memories.'

The secretary of China Cuisine Association, Bian Jiang, lists a clear market orientation and customers' nostalgia for the Mao era among the reasons for the success of Cultural Revolution-themed restaurants.

'They're targeting the middle-aged who are financially better off than young people and can afford a more expensive meal,' he says. 'Besides, this group shares powerful mixed feelings about the past, which spurs their choice.'

Whale Inside manager He says his eatery is based on a more meaningful idea compared with other theme restaurants, reiterating the originators' claims that the experience helps show sighted people what it's like to be blind. However, Whale Inside has yet to hire blind and sight-impaired waiters or figure out how to train them, as many dark-dining restaurants around the world have done. Meals are served by sighted people wearing night-vision goggles.

The restaurant plugs itself as aiming to build 'a world without emotional distance'. Eating in the dark heightens intimacy between people sharing the meal, He says.

'In the dark, it's easier for people to overcome social barriers and make more intense and more authentic contact with others.

'Chinese are reserved and are not good at communicating. I hope our restaurant can work as a conversation platform.'

Being deprived of vision can enhance other senses such as taste, smell, hearing and touch, says He, who plans special events such as readings of horror stories and concerts.

The unusual set-up doesn't always go down well. Some customers find it claustrophobic. Others are spooked by waiters who are seen in the darkness as floating red dots because of their infrared goggles. Others have complained about the quality of food and for not having gloves or bibs to avoid stains.

'I'd recommend it to my colleagues for the novelty, but I wouldn't go twice,' says a patron John Zhang Junwen.