What would you do to draw attention to your restaurant? Hire a celebrity chef? Win a Michelin star? Carefully curate a cult following on Instagram? In a crowded market, many of Asia's restauranteurs have sidestepped the more respectable routes to fame and opted instead to simply become... notorious. Asia's theme restaurants are subsequently booming, with each one vying to out-quirk the competition. The results can be pretty stomach-churning, and sometimes hard to believe, but which (no Googling!) of our 12 unusual theme restaurants is the April fool?
The current trend for unicorns and high-intensity food colourings has a lot to answer for. 'Unicorn food' is everywhere, and everything from bagels to milkshakes is dyed in rainbow colours, covered in sugar, and topped with edible glitter (and often an ice-cream cone horn too.) This café in Bangkok brings it all together under one roof. Unicorn fans can order rainbow spaghetti, unicorn burgers (yes, the bun has its own little horn!) and layered unicorn cakes that could have popped straight out of the imagination of a sugar-crazed 5-year-old. Between courses, you can snuggle up on a sofa with a giant cuddly unicorn, or even borrow a unicorn onesie for the fully immersive experience.
Along similar lines, Hello Kitty theme restaurants across Asia are taking the age-old concept of 'persuading kids to eat healthy food by cutting it into pretty shapes' to a whole new level. Every foodstuff that can be customised, from dumplings to ice cubes, is emblazoned with or shaped into the face of this iconically cute Sanrio cat. Even the salads are garnished with Hello-Kitty-shaped carrot discs. Enjoy Hello Kitty Shabu-Shabu (hot pot) in Taipei, Hello Kitty latte-art in Manila, and everything from waffles to pies in Singapore’s Hello Kitty Orchid Garden. The dishes are given the thumbs up, but the extreme Kittification may be proof that you can have too much of a good thing.
Set up to support the family planning education programmes of a health NGO, Cabbages and Condoms serves up an important idea alongside the meals. This popular Thai chain spreads a positive message about sexual health and family planning in stylish surroundings with excellent food – the branch in Bangkok is often said to serve some of the best Thai food in the city, which is a pretty high accolade. Their good reputation brings in hundreds of diners each night, and the chic surroundings promote condom positivity by using them to decorate the space in fun and subtle ways. And, as the restaurants’ motto states, their food is ‘guaranteed not to cause pregnancy!’
This restaurant in Pho Le Mat, a few kilometres from central Hanoi, is a top spot for adventurous eaters. It specialises in just one main ingredient: snake. Pho Le Mat’s snake connection starts with a local folktale of a boy who rescued a princess from a giant aquatic ‘monster’, and became so revered that the locals built him a temple and learnt to breed, catch and prepare snakes. The Hung Snake serves a variety of dishes made from locally-caught cobras, krait and coluber, among other species. Enjoy snake spring rolls, fried snake bones and snake porridge. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but for some there’s a thrill to eating something that could, if alive, have taken a bite out of you.
As the world begins to go plastic-free, more and more places might take a leaf out of Carton King’s forward-thinking book. In this otherwise unassuming chain of cafés across Taiwan, everything - from the chairs and tables to light fittings and wine goblets - is made from corrugated cardboard. The initial venture was Carton King Creative Park: a theme park founded by the manager of a paper product company, with exhibits such as a steam train and model animals created entirely from cardboard. The success of the park’s onsite café prompted franchises in other parts of Taiwan, and an institution was born. Happily for the customers, the food itself doesn’t taste of cardboard.
The fish you eat at one of ZAUO’s restaurants across Japan is guaranteed to be the freshest you’ll ever have. How can we be sure? Because you’ll catch it yourself. Diners are seated in large boats suspended over a tank in which their future dinner is swimming. You can eat any of the fish on the menu at any time, but if you catch it yourself - it’s cheaper. Rent a rod from the staff and tell them what kind of fish you fancy, and they’ll provide the correct bait and direct you towards your catch. Once it's on the line, your prize is handed over to staff, who’ll bring it back prepared however you please. The experience taps into the Real Food Movement in a rather extreme way...
One of the most famous chains of theme restaurants in Asia must be Modern Toilet in Taiwan. As the name suggests, these cafés revolve around everything to do with toilets, from the chairs (which are full-sized loos complete with jazzy seats) to the food itself, which must be some of the most photographed - and, quite possibly, least actually eaten - restaurant dishes in the world. The food is all crafted to look like, well, what might end up in a toilet. From the disconcertingly cute twirls of chocolate ice cream, to the somewhat appetite-sapping noodle stew and chicken curry served in toilet-shaped dishes, these restaurants are truly dedicated to their theme.
It may not surprise you to hear that Tokyo boasts not one, but two, prison hospital themed restaurants. The Lock-up is a cute and clever take on the concept, consisting of ‘prison style’ bar snacks (including a papadum ingeniously shaped like Jason’s Friday 13th mask) served to you in cell-shaped booths by waiters in full prison guard cosplay, with interruptions as ‘escaping inmates’ are pursued through the dining room. Alcatraz ER, on the other hand is not for the faint-hearted, serving food made to look nauseatingly like human body parts and hospital waste as you sit hunched in dingy ‘bloodstained’ cells. Bon appetit!
This cosmic café just outside Ubud buys excess food from international space agencies that would otherwise be thrown away, and transforms it into tapas-style feasts. They buy everything from freeze-dried ice cream to sweet and sour chicken, and the menu is always changing to accommodate new additions - but as astronaut food is designed to stay edible for years, there’s no time limit on serving it up. Every now and again they get a special batch of food that has actually been into space and back. Diners who want to get their teeth into these especially rare treats pay membership to be part of the Kármán Line Club, and get alerts when a truly outer-space meal is on the menu...
With a concept that could be described as ‘sugar-rush cabaret with matching snacks’, Kawaii Monster Café nestles comfortably between Harajuku's quirky cafes and cosplay emporia. Visit during the day and your every sense will be overloaded with cartoon colours, high-energy performance and tastebud-tingling flavours, which feel like they’ve leapt from the pages of a comic. Visit by night, though, and you’re greeted with a dark cocktail of folk-horror, gothic mythology and burlesque show with a very firmly ‘adult-only’ vibe. The food is Instagrammable, and the experience is unique. Suck it and see!
The concept of Mr Kanso is, as you might spot in name, bewilderingly simple: browse a dizzying range of international canned goods, choose a can or two, let the staff empty the contents onto a plate (heated and garnished if required), and simply... chow down. The uninitiated may assume this idea has a limited shelf-life, but in fact Mr Kanso is a very popular chain of instant eateries throughout Japan. The tins’ contents range from relatively tame options such as tuna, olives and beans to more adventurous (and expensive) ones like canned salad (why!?), bee larvae, and seal curry, and the outlets have minimal prep costs. It may be a gimmick, but it’s working.
There’s nothing new about the novelty of dinner and cocktails served high above a major city, with panoramic sunset views available in sky bars across Asia - but this dining experience takes it to another level. Dining in the Sky is a global craze which has a franchise in Kuala Lumpur, though perhaps it’s cheating to call it a theme restaurant, given that the actual restaurant is absent; there is just a long table, with a mini-kitchen in the middle, around which a group of diners are strapped tightly into harnessed seats. The whole thing is then hoisted 50 metres into the air where it dangles for an hour while the chefs in the centre serve up a three-course meal, and you try not to look down...
Which one is beyond belief? Check back (or keep an eye our social feeds) on Monday 2nd for the answer!