Gone but not frog-otten | Food & Drink Feature | Chicago Reader

Gone but not frog-otten 

A zinester remembers Rainforest Cafe.

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MEGAN KIRBY
  • MEgan Kirby

I watch a TikTok where the Rainforest Cafe frog sits on a trailer in a parking lot, dismantled. When I fall asleep, I dream I have adopted the frog. I am trying to convince my roommate we have the space. "You can use it as a plant stand," I tell her. "Besides, think of the content!"

Cha Cha the frog stood sentry over Chicago for 22 years, peering out over Ohio and Clark streets with wide red eyes and a benign smile. Did you know their name was Cha Cha? I didn't until I went to Rainforest Cafe for the first time, in August 2019. My buddy Jon and I like to go to theme restaurants and write zines about the experience. That late summer evening, our pick was Rainforest Cafe. We ate subpar dinners and took pictures of the animatronic gorillas and spent the next year researching, drawing tree frogs and "Jungle Burgers," drinking seltzers and slamming capitalist schemes at Jon's kitchen table. Even before Cha Cha showed up in my dreams, the Rainforest Cafe sunk deep into my psyche.

But all things must end—especially kitschy theme restaurants clinging to life with the suction of an amphibian's desperate grasp. In August 2020, they dethroned Cha Cha and tore down the plaster mushrooms flanking the River North establishment.

Rainforest Cafe's demise was not entirely unexpected. In December 2019, the Woodfield Mall location was replaced with a Peppa Pig World of Play. When Jon and I went for our fateful meal, the vines covering the walls were dusty. The mist from the wishing well waterfall filled the restaurant with the smell of musty chlorine. Even the animatronic jungle creatures were over it. The leopard's tail swung slowly; Tracy Tree's human eyes twitched with exhaustion.

Our waiter led us through the empty first floor and up the stairs, where a small cluster of diners were seated near each other in front of the robotic elephants. Families with elementary-aged kids, a group of tourists at a long table, and Jon and myself armed with notebooks and adventurers' keen eyes. We were intrepid explorers, deep in the jungle, ordering Diet Cokes with a slice of lime, if you have it?

As a kid, my parents refused to take us to Rainforest Cafe. They would not even entertain the idea. Eleven-year-old me was not happy. Oh, the forbidden clout of a Rainforest Cafe bucket hat. I distinctly remember standing outside the Woodfield location, watching a man with a live parrot. Jon told me that cannot be true—how could they have a live bird in an establishment that passes the health code? I assumed I created a false memory, but when I looked it up, I learned that I was right. In the early aughts, some Rainforest Cafe locations had live parrots entertain kids on field trips as they devoured chicken strips.

In Rainforest Cafe's prime, mechanical birds swung and wheeled from the ceiling. Mist machines hid around the room, transforming the climate to a humid jungle. (The vibe everyone wants as they eat their $14 Anaconda Pasta.) What happened to these feats of experiential dining? "OSHA violations," our waiter shrugged.

That night in 2019, we knew we were dining in a relic. Everything was a little faded, a little musty, a little mildewed from the constant churn of the artificial waterfall. None of this bothered me. The truth is, I was drawn in by the absurdity of it all. The wild thing isn't that Rainforest Cafe shuttered; it's that it survived for two decades.

We're witnessing the downfall of maximalist experiential dining. The Rock ’n’ Roll McDonald's fell in 2018, just across the street from Cha Cha's stalwart gaze. Corny-combative diner Ed Debevic's got pushed out of River North in 2015. Quick—someone check on Medieval Times!

Restaurants aren't built like theme parks anymore. A gift shop does not add a Michelin star. But I do understand the appeal of these spaces, even as they disappear from the public. The point wasn't to feel like you were actually in the middle of a tropical jungle. The point was to play along.

Every 45 minutes at the Rainforest Cafe, a simulated thunderstorm rippled through the space. Ceiling lights flashed, speakers boomed, the animatronic elephants trumpeted in fear. Every time, Jon reacted in faux-terror, gripping the table and hollering. And every time, I laughed like a toddler—gleefully, and without shame. That joke really landed. And I think that sums up the sweet and eerie appeal of Rainforest Cafe: to sit amongst decayed and flimsy fantasy and pretend together.

MEGAN KIRBY
  • Megan Kirby

There's another TikTok making the rounds. A crane wrenches Cha Cha from their perch while a bro across the street chants, "Don't take the frog!"

The funny thing is, when Rainforest Cafe opened downtown in 1997, the city was horrified. Founder Steve Schussler told the Chicago Tribune, "Nowhere, and I mean nowhere, has the reception been as mean."

Maybe that's what nostalgia culture boils down to: protecting the things we once reviled. And to what end? Rainforest Cafe is owned by Landry's Inc., a conglomerate owned by a major Trump supporter. I spent hours crawling through rainforestcafe.com to see if the wishing well coins actually support the rainforest. Results inconclusive.

In a stroke of creative genius, Jon and I titled our publication based on the experience Zineforest Café. On the cover, we drew the Rainforest Cafe logo, except he's the gorilla and I'm Cha Cha. Before we release it, we decided we needed an epilogue. A proper eulogy, now that we know how things end.

Right now, I like to imagine a future where I'm walking downtown with someone I haven't met yet. We'll pass the Ohio-Clark corner, and I'll point to whatever has replaced Rainforest Cafe, and I'll say—with true warmth in my voice—"I used to know the frog who lived there."   v

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