Too much of a good thing may be just the right mix, at least when it involves replicating bygone eras and nostalgic icons.
To evade steep taxes in the early 1970s, the Rolling Stones fled the United Kingdom and temporarily decamped to Villa Nellcôte, an ornate sanctuary on the Côte D’Azur. This gilded Belle Époque mansion, where they recorded the album Exile on Main St., is the inspiration for Nellcôte, a Chicago restaurant fittingly adorned with marble and chandeliers. Likewise Estrella—a shout-out to the name mentioned in Joni Mitchell’s “Ladies of the Canyon”—opened last year in West Hollywood and flaunts a bohemian vibe. Estrella’s outdoor terrace, complete with a golden wood trellis and twinkling lights, is meant to channel LA’s bygone hippy era that was defined by personalities like Mama Cass.
Cultural touchstones have long bestowed bars and restaurants with distinct personalities. Consider the rock and roll–infused behemoth Hard Rock Café International, or the breezy, Polynesian-style tiki bar–concept Trader Vic’s.
Themed establishments draw in customers, curious tourists, and nostalgic locals alike, with a menu and décor that together conjure specific people, pastimes, and periods. While a niche approach can easily veer into gimmicky territory, many savvy entrepreneurs realize that embracing such a narrow focus can be a boon to business. A culturally induced ethos, when executed with precision, has the power to resonate with guests, taking them on an immersive journey. Additionally, as the food and drink scene grows even more competitive, a tailored vision is one way of standing out.
In New York City, for instance, the newcomer Beetle House is an ode to director Tim Burton, luring in a Halloween-loving Gothic crowd who come for the egg and Sriracha cream–topped Edward Burger Hands, and stay for the Coco Skellington (Bacardi rum, crème de coconut, lime juice, orange blossom, crushed ice, and orange zest). The owners of Beetle House are also behind the nearby Stay Classy New York, a bar that channels actor Will Ferrell through drinks such as There’s a Bear Loose in the Coliseum (gin, tonic, lime, sea salt) and amplified by paintings like that of Ferrell’s protagonist in “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” dressing the walls. The trending of themed concepts bodes well for New York’s Rue La Rue Café, the forthcoming “Golden Girls”–themed restaurant that pairs memorabilia and cheesecake. After all, Saved By The Max, the Chicago pop-up diner and bar dispensing the likes of Lisa Turtle milkshakes, was a successful way of paying homage to “Saved By The Bell.”
Pop culture is one obvious and often flashy way of bonding with a wide swath of like-minded guests. Some owners, however, prefer to take a subtler, more meaningful route. The Pastry War in Houston is named after a circa-1838 conflict between Mexico and France, and as a result the mezcaleria celebrates Mexico with a smattering of French touches.
“Frequently, establishments that thematically replicate foreign cultures or settings do so to create a pseudo-experience that differentiates their establishments from commonplace bar experiences,” says co-owner Bobby Heugel. “The problem is that their motivation is sales-based. Our goal is to pay tribute to people we find to be inspiring in Mexico: mezcaleros, bars, and friends. There’s a connection to an actual person with every single drink, spirit, and piece of art.” That’s why The Pastry War’s drinks are “less about applying Mexican spirits to American archetypes and more about building cocktails that help guests to experience traditional beverages that are actually served in Mexico,” he says. Even the bar’s design puts artifacts made by Mexican folk artists in the spotlight.