Most parents greet theme restaurants with at least a minor groan — especially those with more refined ta stebuds and already ailing wallets. Even forgiving the food, the prices, lines, noise and force-fed commercialism seem disproportionate to the experience promised.
T-Rex Cafe, Orlando’s newest and hottest theme restaurant, opened today, seemingly determined to blast that stereotype. And for at least one family, ours, it has almost completely done so. Located in Downtown Disney and done in partnership with Walt Disney World, it retains the standards of the King of Illusion but adds the efficiency of a company that respects its customers’ time constraints and intelligence.
From its life-size dinosaur skeleton (cast from genuine dinosaur bones) to the meteor showers blowing over diners’ heads, this restaurant was as lovingly crafted as a Cuban cigar.
Pride more than profit emanates from Keith Beitler, the Landry’s Restaurants COO, as he shows us around T-Rex.
"Every single piece was made by hand — see the bright colors, the detail!" he says of the coral reef adorning the walls and encircling the bar.
Of the animatronic dinosaurs:
"That’s an anatomically correct adolescent. Kids know all this, everything about dinosaurs. That sign tells, how old, it is, how long it was, and when it lived.
Chef John Silenzio is equally as passionate about visitors, his staff and quality, albeit within given constraints. His attitude — that the staff need to have fun if the diner’s experience is to be fun — is boosted through his cheerful personality, in-house giveaways (iPods, gas cards are a few of the random gifts), and lack of ego. It works.
As a gourmand who appreciates local, organic, fresh foods, I do manage my expectations of the food. This ain’t Per Se and it would take all of the hydroponically grown, organic sugar snap peas harvested in a year to meet the needs of one evening here. But it also isn’t Denny’s or Planet Hollywood.
The food is unquestionably a good value for the experience you are getting. It would easily sweep the awards in the "chain theme" category. Some appetizers are actually very good:
the flatbread and bruschetta being two, and Silenzio is focused on meeting diverse eating needs. If a party has a vegetarian, any allergies or intolerances, the chef himself will come out to see what he can make and then bring it out personally to ensure you get what you ordered. As a vegetarian, I found this spectacularly accommodating in this high volume environment.
With that said, there are some small changes that would immeasurably improve the dining quality that I’d like to see implemented. For example, their signature dessert: a mind-blowing four huge squares of brownie, with caramel sandwiched between, would taste far better with a simple switch to a premium ice cream like Haagen-Dazs instead of the relatively flavorless current selection.
But all in all, with careful meal selection, this becomes an incredible immersive experience that doesn’t insult the diner’s intelligence or break her bank.
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Samantha Chapnick is a New York writer who scours international destinations looking for what hasn’t been found.