Led by Disney and Universal, Southern California theme restaurants are finally leaving the Middle Ages when it comes to concept dining

For a city as outr & #233;, as eccentric, as on the very edge of it all as Los Angeles, we don't have a long tradition of truly strange theme restaurants.

One of the most notable, a place long gone, was called 1520 A.D., an establishment that used to sit on La Cienega's Restaurant Row. The restaurant served what was referred to as food of the Middle Ages, a period that meant lots of buxom maidens and the use of trenchers (bread scoopers) instead of flatware.

But not a lot of attention was paid to the authenticity of the food the underlying concept seemed to be that everyone ate a lot of beef in the Middle Ages.

Pretty much the same thing can be said for Medieval Times down in Buena Park, where the fun of the place comes from the jousting matches.

Disney and the powers-that-be at Universal CityWalk, however, are changing things.

L.A. has entered a new age of theme restaurant dining. And there's now a synergy between the theme and the food.

Consider, for instance, Cafe Tu Tu Tango at Universal CityWalk.

The concept here is that diners are in an artist's loft in Barcelona, drinking sangria, eating tapas, and watching as real artists paint real canvases, which are sold for real money. All the while, a wildly varied assortment of entertainers dance and sing (salsa, mariachi, swing, tap, whatever). It sounds like pure corn, but it works. There's a thematically designed menu of small dishes divided into "Chips, Dips, Breads and Spreads," "Cosas Frias" (Cold Things), "Fritangas," "Empanadas and Egg Rolls" (when have you ever seen an egg roll category on a menu?), "Skewers and Sticks," "Pizzas" and "Lost and Found." The service is as zany as the setting; all that's missing is some graffiti declaring that "Picasso Eats Here!"

Disney dinners

Walt Disney virtually created the concept of the theme park. And so, it's not surprising that the latest addition to the Happiest Place on Earth the newly created Disney California Adventure would take thematic eating to a whole new level. Forget about FantasyLand; this is "FoodLand," a celebration of chow, Disney-style. Which is to say, done bigger than life, and fun for the whole family, though perhaps not that much fun when the credit card bills arrive.

It's a world of themes layered upon themes. According to Claus Mager, general manager of food services at Disney California Adventure, "The idea was to represent California. When you think of California, there's Napa for the wine, of course. But there's also San Francisco, with its Fisherman's Wharf and Chinatown. There's Berkeley, Monterey and the Central Coast, the farmland of the agricultural regions, the Hispanic communities, the desert and Indio and its date shakes.

"It's a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural state that has such richness and diversity," he said. "There isn't another state in the union with such a wealth of food."

Disney has stacked itself with restaurants like the ABC Soap Opera Bistro, decorated with stage sets used on ABC soaps like "All My Children" and "General Hospital;" the ESPN Zone, which it calls the "ultimate sports location," with 175 TV sets spread over 35,000 square feet; and the Golden Vine Winery, which is operated by the Mondavi Family.

What the ESPN Zone is to sports and food, the Golden Vine is to wine and food. The concept includes 350 living grape vines, and vintners who demonstrate the fine art of winemaking before getting down to the serious business of sampling.

Disney also has Rainforest Cafe, where the experience is like eating in a Mayan ruin in a rainforest. The diner is surrounded by structures that look like ancient temples with waterfalls cascading down them, live tropical foliage, the rumble of tropical rainstorms and a menu that leans towards an eclectic mix of Mexico, the Caribbean and Asia. Very kid friendly, down to the many collectible critters they offer Cha! Cha! the tree frog, Tuki the elephant, Nile the crocodile and more.

New Orleans style

There's Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen, where fare is served in a setting that could have been lifted from the French Quarter, designed to be reminiscent of famous New Orleans eateries like the Court of the Two Sisters or Cafe du Monde. (They even serve chicory coffee with beignet, just like at Cafe du Monde.) And there's Y Arriba! Y Arriba!, created by the Estrello Mundo Group from Miami, where the concept is Pan Hispanic tapas from Spain and Portugal, and dishes cooked in the Floridian style known as Nouvelle Latino, created by the chefs from Patria and Calle Ocho in New York. This 18,000-square-foot space includes a 600-seat venue with constant entertainment, including an eight-piece house combo, salsa dancers, tango, mambo, samba if it's Latino, they'll do it.

There's nothing quite as zany at Disney as the outlandish theme eatery called Live Bait, where the underlying theme is redneck, down-home, no-account, low-rent at Big City prices. This is a restaurant where trendies go to pretend that their names are Zeke and Rufus, Billy Bob and Betty Jo, that they've just come in from a day fishin' with a safety pin down on the bayou, that they're wearin' overalls from the Montgomery Ward catalog, rather than jeans by Polo. The food runs to basic redneck chow: cornflake Delta catfish, chicken-fried steak, Sloppy Joes, pulled pork sandwiches, corn and jalapeno hushpuppies. Chunks of plaster are missing from the walls; there's a Confederate flag against one wall. The one big difference is the music Ricky Martin is never played by people who spend their days fishing for mudpuppies.

Mayan themes

Another area theme restaurant, Tikal (217 Pine Ave., Long Beach), is Yucatan moderne. It's a trip to the heart of the Mexican jungle, complete with a Mayan pyramid, a two-story-tall waterfall, and a mural of the ancient Mayan city after which the restaurant is named. The theme follows through to the food, where the dishes have Mayan names like koy mop payil (stuffed red snapper), xiw Tikal (a mixed vegetable and fruit salad), and ch'ich' (baked chicken).

There are some points of modernization, of course there's an elevator inside the pyramid that leads to a bar on the second floor. And there's an AMC theatre complex next door.

There are various attempts at New Orleans-type themes around town, at places like the Ragin' Cajun down in Hermosa Beach. There's King's Crab Lounge (4798 Commons Way, Calabasas; 100 W. Broadway, Long Beach). The same people created the downtown seafood house, the Water Grill. At the Crab Lounge, they've come up with an upscale bayou gumbo shack, with Zydeco music in the air, rough wood surfaces and heaping platters of shrimp and crab. If you want to put some spice in your life and on your food go to the Hot Sauce Library near the bar, where some three dozen bottles of liquid fire are available to raise the temperature.

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