The Good: Decent food, Good service, Interesting atmosphere, Cool keepsakes
The Bad: Overpriced, No real healthy dining options, Shameless merchandising
The Basics: I had a surprising amount of fun at the Hard Rock Cafe in New York City, but not for the food.
As many of my readers know, I just returned from a whirlwind trip, which was a gift to my partner in honor of my partner's upcoming 21st birthday. I departed for the trip with a best friend who I met only four months prior, I returned with a fiance. Is it any wonder that it has taken me a few weeks to get around to reviewing the various components of my trip? As it so happens, so much of the trip was reviewable, so it seems appropriate to begin near the beginning.
Our first night in New York City was the only night we had a plan for. Our intent had been to find our hotel in Edgewater, New Jersey, then cross the George Washington Bridge, find a place to park and go see The Phantom Of The Opera (reviewed here!) at the Majestic Theater. Owing to traffic, we decided to forego finding our hotel and go right into Manhattan and as a result, after finding parking, my partner mentioned that as soon as we picked up our tickets at will call, finding a bathroom would be a good idea. So, we went from the Majestic Theater over a block to the Toys R Us in Times Square. Relieved and much happier, we left the toy store and that is when my partner gasped in excitement; across the Square was the Hard Rock Cafe. And just like that, we had someplace to be after the show.
Prior to this, the only part of the Hard Rock Cafe franchise I had been to was the Hard Rock Cafe Casino in Las Vegas which I basically characterized as hell on Earth. So, to say that I was not eager to go to the Hard Rock Cafe in New York City is something of an understatement. Still, because this trip was a gift, I put my best foot forward, smile and make my partner happy. I ended up being quite happy that I did. The Hard Rock Cafe was actually a lot of fun, despite being pricey.
The Hard Rock Cafe is located in Times Square in Midtown Manhattan. This is right next to the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and across the street from Toys R Us and the ABC studios. What appears to be just a store filled with Hard Rock Cafe merchandise actually leads to a stairwell down into the basement; this is where the actual Hard Rock Cafe is.
This Hard Rock Cafe feels more like a tavern than a nightclub and the lighting is fairly dark. Still, it does not have a dank feel to it, thanks to New York State's nonsmoking laws. As a result, this has the feel of being a trendy bar without the sweat and stink of one!
The walls of this Hard Rock Cafe are adorned with guitars, photographs, album covers, platinum records and famous costumes from some of the most recognizable names in rock and roll. So, for example, there is an alcove of autographed pictures of David Bowie and guitars from the members of Maroon 5. We saw an autographed magazine cover of Beck as well as an amazing piece; a mounted record of The Beatles white album autographed by the entire band! I suppose this is the rock and roll equivalent of a geek's mecca like I've seen at various Star Trek prop exhibits. Elvis, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, even Frank Sinatra had memorabilia on the walls. In fact, amid the Pearl Jam, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, Queen, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Marilyn Manson swag, I found myself surprised by the absence of anything Oasis. Perhaps they dominate the London establishment, but their utter lack of presence in New York City surprised me. Perhaps the coolest piece, given my bent, was the presence of Bill Clinton's saxophone on the wall!
Monitors play music videos from current obscure artists mixed with classic rock performances in a mix that is better than anything I've seen on MTV or VH-1 in the past few years. Still, the lighting is fairly low and more noise comes from the patrons than the sound system, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover my partner and I could actually hold a conversation while dining here.
Entering the Hard Rock Cafe (past the original sign for Studio 54) diners are photographed as part of the establishments unrelenting merchandising.
I am not sure what I expected out of the waitstaff at the Hard Rock Cafe, but I suppose my thought was they would be more like the stereotypical help at Tower Records. I was shocked less, I think, by the lack of piercings and visible tattoos than by the conservative clothing the staff wore. No miniskirts or rock t-shirts, the Hard Rock Cafe's waitresses and maitr'd were adorned in black collared golf shirts with an embroidered logo on them. They all wore black pants; no skirts, boots (that should be read with the proper inflection to connote heels, leather and at least reaching up the knees with a sense of kink to them), or chains. I suppose I felt a little disappointed, though I would take the professionalism of the New York Cafe over the gaudiness of the Las Vegas Casino any day.
And our server was professional. She was courteous, appeared moments after we were seated and informed us of the specials. She answered all of our questions thoroughly and she appeared cheerful, which might have been a feat at eleven o'clock on a Friday night. My partner surprised me by not asking to have whatever Bowie had when he came in, but I suspect our server would have been able to accommodate that. Dishes were removed quickly when we finished with them, though I never saw her hovering.
Despite my dislike of the merchandise being pressed constantly on diners - one has to get through the gift shop just to enter the establishment - I have to say that the staff was accommodating when we decided against the whole photograph package after initially accepting it. For an additional $20 - added right to the bill - we could have gotten an 8x10, a couple smaller shots and a keychain picture of us in front of the wall of guitars that was taken when we entered. As my partner sat looking it over, we became less enchanted by the souvenir and we were able to hand it back. The staff did not treat us any differently after that, a sign of their professionalism.
Of course, being a restaurant, the Hard Rock Cafe in New York does have to have food. The food here is pretty typical bar food, but anyone from Middle America will find it priced two to three times what they are used to paying. Everything is fried, save the drinks, and there was nothing remotely healthy. The only vegetarian options I recall seeing were the salads and French Fries.
We started our meal with nonalcoholic drinks. They came in fairly large glasses and we were informed we would be able to keep the glasses (actually, we were given identical ones that had never been used in the gift shop on the way out). My partner had some foul concoction mixing a citrus juice with sugar free Red Bull (ick!) and I had a drink that was mango and strawberry as I recall (I don't remember why I couldn't get a virgin pina colada or perhaps I had been looking to try something new . . .). My drink was appropriately cold, sweet and cut the salt and grease of the rest of the meal.
We opted against any of the appetizers, mostly because they were all deep fried and seemed overly expensive.
My partner had some form of hamburger and all I recall about it was that it was more on the rare side of medium rare than anticipated. Still, my partner said it was quite flavorful, though I am surprised the meat could be tasted at all considering the amount of mushrooms, lettuce and thick tomatoes on top of it! That came with seasoned fries.
My meal was a barbecue pork sandwich which was served open-faced. The shredded pork was dry in some places and the barbecue sauce was an interesting mix of sweet and spicy. As I recall, I was embarrassed to realize that I was dipping my sandwich in my side of baked beans before I realized that they were the beans. The sauce on the beans had a bit of a kick and the seasoned fries that came with the sandwich were not seasoned in any way that was noticeably flavorful compared to most other seasoned fries I've had in my life.
With drinks, our two meals came to $50 before tip and for the quality of the food, I left feeling more ambivalent than satisfied, though the portions were good and we did get the souvenir glasses.
Honestly, the reason to go to the Hard Rock Cafe is not for the food, it is for the dining experience and in that regard, it was perfect. So unlike anything else, dining here amid the swag of my partner's rock heroes, this became a great way to cap off our first night together in New York City. Following my partner's first Broadway play, this became a part of a magical New York City night.
For the tourist appeal and the simple joy of gawking over the memorabilia of rock and roll artists, the Hard Rock Cafe in New York City is wonderful, for the food, it is average, with its expense dragging it down into the less appealing.
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© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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