Neither Alcatraz in its heyday nor any tropical rain forests is the sort of place that one would normally associate with relaxing, hospitable dining for civilized people. Yet there they are, facing each other across the entrance to Neighborhood 5 of Tempe's Arizona Mills -- Alcatraz Brewing Co. and Rainforest Café. How blithely we've presumed to tame the dark corners of the Earth, both human and wild. What's next -- Antarctica Eatery and Devil's Island Diner?
Actually, both Alcatraz Brewing Co. and Rainforest Café are variations on a relatively new concept -- the restaurant as theme park. Almost all restaurants have themes, of course, usually based on the ostensible culture out of which their cuisines arise. Sometimes restaurant themes may even wag the dog of cultural perception -- our skewed ideas of, say, Italian and Chinese society probably derive in larger measure than we realize from the decor of Italian-American and Chinese-American restaurants.
But Alcatraz and Rainforest Café go beyond Chianti bottles on the table or dragons in the paneling. These two places, and others like them, are self-consciously thematic. They boast scenic elements and, in some cases, flat-out special effects that wouldn't shame Disneyland or a movie studio. The experience of dining at them has little relevance to the (high-priced) food they serve. Indeed, at times the experience seems engineered to distract you from the food.
Rain forests cover just 6 percent of the dry land on the planet, yet more than 40 percent of all terrestrial plant, animal and insect species and 50 percent of all trees live in one of them. As a result, rain forests are, and are meant to be, incredibly unharmonious, noisy, competitive, violent, venomous places. Plants and animals alike are often loaded with deadly toxins, and, in many cases -- arrow-poison frogs are a well-known example -- are brilliantly colored precisely to advertise their inedibility to predators. In this sense, at least, Rainforest Café accurately reflects the environment on which it's based. It is, I think, the most irritating place in which I have ever paid to eat.
The shockingly garish façade of the café is sculpted in green plastic to resemble a canopy of foliage. From between the trunks poke the sculpted faces of Peaceable Kingdom animals, rendered with such ugliness and vapidity that you'd think the designer was an anti-biodiversity propagandist. Out front, three unfortunate live macaws on perches are put through some sort of paces for the amusement of waiting customers and passing mall-rat rabble by an only slightly more fortunate trainer. In a pool, a huge animatronic crocodile lunges and yawns periodically, to allow kids to try to toss change into its mouth; a sign assures us that all money collected there goes to saving the rain forest.
Rainforest Café calls itself "A Wild Place to Shop and Eat." Unquestionably true, but "wild" is one of those words, like "different," that can be used euphemistically. The shopping part is in a little store adjacent to the dining room, full of plastic snakes, tree frogs and the like for the kids. For the grown-ups, there are tropical print shirts, some of which wouldn't be too bad except that they're wildly overpriced and most of them have the words "Rainforest Café" on them. This amounts to an overpriced advertisement of the fact that you're a big enough flake to shop there.
From the retail end of the Rainforest, we passed through an elaborate border of giant aquariums full of wrasses and remoras and other beautiful salt-water fish that have nothing to do with the rain forest, and into the dining room. At this point, a hostess named Lindsey in Hemingwayesque khaki took over, telling us she would give us a tour.
She showed us large robotic gorillas and larger robotic elephants and promised us that they would move and make noise every 10 minutes (this turned out to be true). She showed us a twinkling star map on the ceiling, and informed us that this was how the sky looked in the western hemisphere. I wondered, but didn't ask, if maybe she meant "southern hemisphere," as one could presumably see what the sky in the western hemisphere looked like by stepping into the parking lot.
We were seated by a fountain, in the center of which stood a large metal statue of Atlas, bearing a planet with the legend "Rainforest" emblazoned on it in neon. Much as we appreciated the proximity to this tasteful artwork, the roar of the water and the fine, cold, clammy mist that constantly settled upon us forced me, after a few minutes, to ask the server to find us another table. We were reseated cheerfully, but this only cut the din in half. Rainforest Café is a restaurant with a soundtrack. Roars, grunts, chirps, hoots, screeches and occasional thunderclaps, accompanied by -- no kidding -- flickers of lightning overload your senses every second, and are mixed with piped-in music of the sort played in the cabanas of package-tour island resorts.