weather icon Mostly Cloudy

Las Vegas Strip Hard Rock Cafe, others survive themed restaurant era

In the mid-’90s, Steven Spielberg brought in some Hollywood movie magic to Las Vegas.

The famed director opened the second location of his themed restaurant Dive! at the Fashion Show mall. The restaurant stood out among the rest, with a giant yellow submarine named the LV Dive jutting out of the side.

Despite being spearheaded by Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steve Wynn, the restaurants couldn’t keep afloat. The flagship Los Angeles location closed in 1999, and the Las Vegas location followed soon after.

While experts say the themed restaurant industry’s bubble popped years ago, some continue to have a fan base on the Las Vegas Strip.

Themed restaurants’ heyday

The $15 million Dive! restaurant in Las Vegas held its grand opening on June 12, 1995, bringing in A-list celebrities such as Kurt Russell and Janet Jackson.

The restaurant worked to draw in crowds with special effects like a regular “dive sequence,” in which diners were surrounded by flashing warning lights, horns and video monitors that showed scenes of the LV Dive surfacing to encounter different scenarios, like a baby in a bathtub.

In the mid-’90s, a major investment in an extravagant themed restaurant like Dive! made sense. Planet Hollywood International Inc. — best known for its restaurants with Hollywood memorabilia — had the backing of celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Whoopi Goldberg, and reported a revenue of $373.4 million in 1996. That same year, Rainforest Cafe Inc. reported revenue of $48.7 million, just two years after it opened its first location inside the Mall of America.

“Those were the days, back when theme restaurants were really a hot commodity,” said Lyle Berman, former chairman and chief executive of Rainforest Cafe. “I think when we (first started) it, we were just thinking of one store … but it was so successful that we decided to make a big company out of it.”

Berman said the Rainforest Cafe that was in the MGM Grand between 1997 and 2015 had an annual revenue of about $30 million.

The industry’s rapid success allowed two themed restaurant brands — the Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood — to purchase Las Vegas assets. Hard Rock Cafe founder Peter Morton owned and operated the Hard Rock Hotel from 1995 to 2006, and Planet Hollywood was part of a joint venture that bought the former Aladdin property in 2003 and officially changed the name to Planet Hollywood four years later.

Tilman Fertitta, CEO of Landry’s Inc. — which now owns the Rainforest Cafe franchise — said tourism-driven cities like Las Vegas are some of the best locations to operate themed restaurants.

“People eat differently when they’re on vacation,” he said.

But even those cities are seeing a decline in themed restaurant brands. Earlier this month, the Hard Rock Hotel began to demolish the Hard Rock Cafe on the corner of Paradise and Harmon. The property itself will become Virgin Hotels Las Vegas next year. There is still a Hard Rock Cafe location on the Strip.

After opening the Las Vegas location, Spielberg and his partners said that they expected to open at least 10 more Dive! Restaurants within the next two years, but plans changed as customers started to lose interest in themed restaurants.

The industry’s downfall

Experts say the themed restaurant industry’s peak was in the mid-’90s, right as Dive! opened its doors.

But by the early 2000s, much of its business started to migrate elsewhere. By the mid-2000s, revenues started to decline and many restaurants — including the submarine sub shop — shut its doors for good.

Even the most successful themed restaurants struggled in that time. Rainforest Cafe was sold off to Landry’s Seafood Restaurant for nearly $75 million in 2000. That same year, Planet Hollywood closed six of its restaurants, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. There are only seven left today, according to its website.

Aaron Allen, CEO of the restaurant consultancy Aaron Allen & Associates, said there’s been zero growth in U.S. casual dining based on same store sales over the last 10 years.

“It’s actually staggering,” he said.

Allen pointed to shifting consumer interests as one of the reasons these restaurants have struggled. He said many diners today are more interested in experiential spaces and new adventures when dining as opposed to chain restaurants.

“Nationally, the profile of these restaurants are really under pressure, and (they’re) closing,” Allen said.

Fertitta said a lot of the themed restaurants’ failures come from focusing too much on the theme, and not enough on the food or service.

You have to “know who your customer is, and then have the food,” he said.

Fertitta said that’s why some of Landry’s themed restaurants — which include Rainforest Cafe and Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. — have been able to last throughout the years. Allen said the initial success of themed restaurants also helps their longevity.

“It’s whoever got enough size and scale (during the boom) that there’s so much invested interest,” Allen said. “Sometimes you can just bite your way through problems.”

And it doesn’t look like there’s another boom coming for themed restaurants anytime soon. Berman said he’s been approached by people with themed restaurant ideas over the years, but has so far declined them all.

“(I) didn’t think they’d be as good as the one we had,” he said. “I think the heyday has passed.”

Photo captions in a previous version of this story incorrectly stated the location of the Las Vegas Rainforest Cafe. The restaurant is at 3717 Las Vegas Boulevard South.

Contact Bailey Schulz at bschulz@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0233. Follow @bailey_schulz on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Business Videos
Opening ceremony of the first Chick-fil-A restaurant inside a casino
Opening ceremony of the first Chick-fil-A restaurant inside a casino at the Golden Nugget on Monday, Dec. 2, 2019. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Fire damages 7 cars at Las Vegas airport parking garage - VIDEO
Firefighters on Saturday morning extinguished a car blaze that damaged six other vehicles in a parking garage at McCarran International Airport. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Vegas Changes Everything: Grandma - LVCVA ad
"Grandma" is a new television spot from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority prepared to entice visitors to come during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. (Visit Las Vegas/YouTube)
Vegas Changes Everything: Chaos - LVCVA ad
"Chaos" is a new television spot from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority prepared to entice visitors to come during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. (Visit Las Vegas/YouTube)
New allegations involved Steve, Elaine Wynn - VIDEO
The new allegations were presented Friday in a motion that included a 2018 affidavit, alleging former hairstylist Jorgen Nielsen tried to convince a friend to say Steve Wynn raped her and that she bore his son. The affidavit also included new allegations suggesting Elaine Wynn and Nielson orchestrated the assault scandal. (Renee Summerour/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Fitness chain Life Time acquires former Sullivan Square site
Fitness chain Life Time has acquired the former Sullivan Square site in Las Vegas for $14 million. The southwest valley property, across the street from Ikea, is little more than a giant hole in the ground. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Fashion Outlets of Las Vegas in Primm outlet mall changing its name - VIDEO
Chad Dillow, co-owner of Step Right Up, is building his attraction at Prizm Outlets, which recently changed it name from Fashion Outlets of Las Vegas, in Primm. It will include 3D trick art, ax throwing, escape rooms and carnival-themed games. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
O.J. Simpson files lawsuit against The Cosmopolitan over TMZ story - VIDEO
A lawsuit filed Thursday alleges that The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas defamed O.J. Simpson when hotel employees told TMZ he was kicked out of the casino “for belligerence” in November 2017. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Phil Maloof on selling his Palms Place penthouse.
Phil Maloof sold his 59th-floor penthouse at Palms Place. (Eli Segall/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Bleutech announces Las Vegas land purchase deal
Bleutech Park Properties reached a purchase agreement for 210 acres at Las Vegas Boulevard and Cactus Avenue, project spokesman Tom Letizia announced Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019 at a news conference at the M Resort. (Elizabeth Brumley/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Stolen Dodge Challenger found, suspect arrested - VIDEO
A $250,000 custom-built Dodge Challenger was stolen on Oct. 30, 2019, just before it was to be displayed at the Specialty Equipment Market Association trade show in Las Vegas this week. The thief was found by an Nevada Highway Patrol trooper, who rammed the trooper's car with the Challenger and got away. The suspect was ultimately arrested and the car recovered. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Terbine's, a tech firm, decision to relocate business from Bay Area to Las Vegas
Terbine's, a tech firm, decision to relocate business from Bay Area to Las Vegas. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
A walk through the historic Huntridge Theater in Las Vegas - VIDEO
The Huntridge Theater became a musical venue in 1992 and was a staging ground for groups on the rise and alternative superstars, from Smashing Pumpkins to Sarah McLachlan, the Deftones, Nine Inch Nails, Green Day and Fugazi. The venue has been closed since 2004. This video, taken on Oct. 31, 2019, shows what's left of the theater after 15 years. (David Guzman/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
MGM Resorts International looking to sell another property
MGM Resorts International is working to sell its MGM Grand property on the Las Vegas Strip. (Renee Summerour/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Developer Sam Cherry reveals plans for shareDOWNTOWN.
Mayor Carolyn Goodman and Councilwoman Olivia Diaz will attend this event where plans are revealed for a future apartment complex in the Arts District. (Shea Johnson/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas Convention Center expansion update - VIDEO
Take a drive outside of the new Las Vegas Convention Center expansion project. (Severiano Galvan/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Binion's debuts a spinning bar overlooking Fremont Street Experience - VIDEO
Binion's debuted its spinning bar inside the Whiskey Licker Up Saloon. The Rotating bar only goes at one full rotation per 15 minutes overlooking the Fremont Street Experience. (James Schaeffer/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Day 3 of the 2019 Global Gaming Expo
Day 3 of the 2019 Global Gaming Expo took place at the Sands Expo and Convention Center in Las Vegas Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Southern Nevada could set a new resale-price record in coming months.
The median sales price of previously owned single-family homes – the bulk of the market – was $310,000 in September. Before the economy crashed last decade, prices peaked in June 2006 at $315,000, according to the Greater Las Vegas Association of Realtors.(Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Walmart container park in Henderson - VIDEO
Henderson could be home to a container park associated with a Walmart Inc. initiative. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Resorts World construction update - Video
Resorts World Las Vegas continues its construction on the Las Vegas Strip. Review-Journal studio host Aaron Drawhorn and business reporter Rick Velotta go over the newest updates in the construction. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Recession lessons could help Las Vegas face next slump - VIDEO
While the last economic downturn had a dramatic impact on local casinos, most experts expect the industry will be better able to weather the storm during the next recession. (Mat Luschek / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
St. Rose Parkway Construction - Video
St. Rose Parkway continues to have construction along the six-and-a-half mile road. Review-Journal studio host Aaron Drawhorn and business reporter Eli Segall go over the construction projects that are coming to Henderson.
MGM and victims of Oct. 1 reach settlement agreement - VIDEO
MGM Resorts International and lawyers representing potentially thousands of victims of the Oct. 1, 2017, mass shooting on the Las Vegas Strip have reached a tentative settlement of between $735 million and $800 million. (Mat Luschek /Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Live music and EDM dominate the night on day 2 of A’Le’Innstock
After sunset bands rocked the crowds at A’Le’Innstock in Rachel, Nevada on the second night of the event.
iPhone 11 Release
Local Las Vegas long time Apple product consumer shares her excitement for the new iPhone 11 release Downtown Summerlin. (Elizabeth Page Brumley/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Lihi Levin talks about a mobil app Dropit - VIDEO
Lihi Levin, regional manager at Dropit Shopping, talks about a mobil app Dropit. The app lets customers leave their shopping bags at a store then have them delivered the same day to their home or hotel so they can shop without carrying multiple bags all day. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
North Las Vegas company prepares for Mars - VIDEO
Robert Bigelow and his Bigelow Aerospace manufacturing facility played host to eight NASA astronauts and 60 engineers this week getting to know the company’s B330 autonomous, expandable space station. (Elizabeth Brumley/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Trump gets win as Dems, White House forge new North American trade deal

House Democrats and the White House announced a deal on a modified North American trade pact, handing President Donald Trump a major Capitol Hill win Tuesday on the same day that impeachment charges were announced against him. Both sides hailed the deal as a win for American workers.