Listening to the Peanuts gang sing The Beatles’ Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds while eating French toast emblazoned with Charlie Brown’s face sounds like something out of a fever dream, but in Hong Kong, it’s a fairly normal thing to do.
So is snacking on French fries while real rabbits hop around you, having drinks in a booth designed to look like an airplane interior or sitting at a table with a Death Eater from the Harry Potter universe hanging overhead.
Themed cafés are proliferating in Hong Kong, a seemingly inevitable trend in a city that boasts one of the highest concentration of restaurants in the world.
Needing something extra to stand out from the crowd, many proprietors are turning to cartoons, movies, animals and even go-karts to attract customers.
The Charlie Brown Café, on Granville Road in the heart of touristy Tsim Sha Tsui, is one of the oldest examples. Opened in 2006 by restaurateur Elise Lau, the establishment has proven popular with both children and adults.
It took Lau, who loved the Peanuts gang as a child, two years to acquire the licence from U.S.-based United Media, which ultimately sold its Charlie Brown-related assets in 2010 to Peanuts Worldwide.
The end result was worth it, as the café is a Peanuts-lover’s dream. The ground level sells delicious desserts and beverages decorated with characters such as Linus, Lucy and Woodstock. The Snoopy Signature Iced Premium Chocolate features a cookie shaped liked the famous dog’s head.
Upstairs, through an entrance shaped like Snoopy’s doghouse, the main restaurant serves mainly Western fare, including burgers, steaks and sandwiches. Some items, such as the French toast I ordered, have character faces seared into them. The Signature Snoopy Rice with eggs and Bolognese sauce comes with two lumps of rice cleverly arranged in the shape of Snoopy himself.
Character statues ring the restaurant while Charles M. Schultz’s original cartoons line the walls. The experienced is soundtracked by the sound of the gang singing The Beatles. It’s hard not to be charmed by the child-like innocence of it all.
Carol Man, the café’s regional manager, says the restaurant attracts mainly adults who are nostalgic about Peanuts cartoons. The establishment recently switched to table-ordering from a buffet system to better cater to that audience.
“People come for the cakes and the selection of food,” she says. “Business is a little less [with kids] because we switched from self-service. Right now, the target is more older people and travellers.”
The clientele at Rabbitland, across the harbour in Causeway Bay, is almost entirely children, along with their adult guardians. The third-floor establishment, opened in 2016, is a new take on the growing global trend of cat cafés, which encourage customers to interact with free-roaming felines while they snack on desserts and coffees.
Rabbitland’s menu is limited to drinks, fries and salads, but the obvious attraction – as its name implies – are the bunnies. Visitors are free to pet the resident rabbits and feed them purchasable snacks.
Cheryl Canter, one of the few adult visitors here one recent afternoon, operates her own regular café, Baked It Myself, in Van Nuys, Calif. She’s now thinking about getting into the theme game.
“It’s a great place to bring kids. Look at them, they’re having so much fun,” she says. “Now that I’ve been here, are you kidding me? My mind has been going, ‘How can I make this work?’”
Back across the harbour, in the busy Mong Kok shopping district, the 9 3/4 Café welcomes Harry Potter fans. On the evening that I visited, a group of twentysomething girls was whooping it up while taking selfies in front of the luggage cart that’s seemingly halfway through the wall, a reference to the illusory entrance to the franchise’s famed Platform 9 3/4.
A sign on the café’s door informs visitors this isn’t a licensed establishment – it’s not officially affiliated with Warner Bros. or Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling. There’s plenty of film paraphernalia to go around anyway, such as the broomsticks and wands on the walls and the Harry Potter Lego sets on display.
The menu isn’t as gimmicky as the Charlie Brown Café’s, opting instead for straightforward pasta and burgers. The Butter Beer – a tasty concoction that tastes like cream soda topped with whipped cream – is one of the few exceptions.
Further north in Tai Kok Tsui, the 747 Galley dares customers to sit at tables designed to look like an airliner’s flight cabin, although the proprietors promise that the food is better. The Crazy Car Café, in nearby Cheung Sha Wan, offers guests a combination of Western fusion cuisine, deep-fried snacks and go-karting.
Canine lovers, meanwhile, can grab snacks and drinks while interacting with a host of pooches at the On Dog Dog Café in Mong Kok.
The sustainability of such gimmicks is questionable. Many theme cafés are relatively new, having opened in recent years, while others – including those based on Swedish-Finnish cartoon Moomin, Japanese anime One Piece and, of course, Hello Kitty – have closed down. Still, new places keep springing up.
Janice Leung Hayes, who writes the local food blog e_ting, attributes the zeal for theme cafés to a culture that’s more in tune with youthfulness, a trait inherited from Japan.
“There's a ‘kidult’ (kid-plus-adult) culture in Asia in general, where it’s totally okay to be a fully grown adult, but still be into anime and cartoon characters,” she says.
“In the West, until recently, cartoons were only for kids, but in Japan, illustrated books and animation have almost always been used in media intended for adults too, so there’s never been a clear distinction.”
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