I’ve never seen Forrest Gump in its entirety. This hasn’t proven to be much of a problem, honestly: Forrest Gump references have been so arduously instilled into popular culture since its 1993 release that the phrase “run, Forrest, run!” carried significance on the playground when I was a kid with no idea of who Forrest was, or why he was running.
I have seen about half of it, though. On the Fourth of July last year, the movie was playing on TV and I tuned in and out of it as I prepped burger patties and potato salad. Here’s what I can recall from the movie: Forrest arriving at some anti-Vietnam War protest; Forrest encountering an abusive hippie prick who was dating Jenny, the love of his life; some Black Panthers; Forrest running; Forrest running through Monument Valley; Forrest suddenly not running anymore; a boat; Jenny dying; Forrest acquiring stock in Apple and making bank; and Forrest giving some of said bank to an old black woman who was the mother of his fallen friend, Bubba. I’m not sure if I shared this chain of events in the correct order, but I know they happened.
According to Wikipedia, my recollection of a “boat” has its origins in the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, the shrimping business launched by Forrest and his disabled army lieutenant, Lieutenant Dan. But you don’t really need to be a Forrest Gump aficionado to get into the real life Bubba Gump Shrimping Company, a Forrest Gump-themed chain restaurant. I went to one in Universal Studios in Orlando when I was 20, ignorant of the fact that it even was Forrest Gump themed—I thought it was simply a shrimp spot with a down-home name. But now that I am 28—older, wiser—I was better able to enjoy the novelty of a restaurant entirely based on a movie that came out 25 years ago.
In 1995—the year Forrest Gump won a slew of Oscars, including Best Picture—Paramount Pictures approached Rusty Pelican Restaurant Inc. with the idea of capitalizing on its enormous success through a Forrest Gump branded restaurant. By 1996, Bubba Gump Shrimp Company opened in Monterey, California, with plans in place to open 23 more in the next five years. Despite some withering reactions from food critics—in a 1997 review for the San Francisco Chronicle, critic Maria Cianci said that Bubba Gump “isn’t a place to go for food,” and in 1998, Chicago Tribune restaurant critic Phil Vettel said he had no intention of visiting the establishment—Bubba Gump trucked on. It remains successful enough that from Maui, to London, to Osaka, there’s a Bubba Gump restaurant, attracting tourists with the promise of deep fried sea critters.
A couple of weeks ago, Jezebel video producer Lisa Fischer and I headed over to the restaurant a little after 1 P.M. Luckily, it was only two blocks away from the Jezebel office, so we didn’t have to push through too much of the chaotic Times Square slog of tourists who don’t know how to walk with purpose.
Upon entering Bubba Gump, one of the first things diners see is a giant jubilant shrimp wearing a top hat.
He’s happy. I’m happy. We’re all happy because we’re at Bubba fuckin’ Gumps about to eat that lil’ guy’s cousins. Mood.
We were led upstairs to our table, and as I made my ascent I noticed a bunch of behind-the-scenes Forrest Gump set photos peppering the walls. They were displayed behind sad glass cases that vaguely reminded me of middle-school science fair projects, but it was kind of cool. I really liked the display of character costume designs, especially Jenny’s.
When Lisa and I were seated, we were greeted by a waiter who asked us where we’re from. He’s probably used to hearing a variety of answers by now, but most of them probably aren’t “New York.” Few New Yorkers go out of their way to spend much time in Times Square just for the hell of it, especially not to dine at a sit-down chain restaurant during their lunch hour. To hammer in this point, most of the diners appeared to be European tourists; an old British couple was sitting in the booth across from us, eventually replaced by a younger German couple.
Sheepishly, Lisa and I told the waiter, “We’re from here.”
He was clearly surprised, but he wasn’t thrown off for long. We started to shoot the shit before he handed us our menus and explained a sign at the end of our table. There was a blue license plate with the phrase “Run, Forrest, Run!” which we were to display when we were enjoying our meal and didn’t need his service. A red license plate reading “Stop, Forrest, Stop!” signaled to our server that we wanted his attention. I’ve never worked in food service, but I wondered if this is actually helpful for a bustling restaurant or just a cornball gimmick the employees have to deal with, and hate.
Frankly, that was the most gimmicky aspect of the entire restaurant, which is saying a lot for an interior that can be best described as a Cracker Barrel-adjacent: the same celebration of old-timey kitsch and wood paneling, but with photos of Tom Hanks here and there.
Everything in Bubba Gump looks like it’s from an antique store or yard sale, Americana radiating off the assorted football helmets, junkyard license plates, and vintage baseball posters. At Bubba Gump, you’re clearly supposed to feel like you’re in some cozy country living room, an unpretentious space modeled after the folksy feel of the movie. And hey, they did a good job. I was especially impressed by the tin roof on the ceiling, a nice touch. It’s all pretty corny, but as far as a themed restaurant goes, it could have been way cornier. Mercifully, whoever decorated this place had a modicum of restraint and refrained from placing framed photos of Forrest on every table or something.
The only aspect that really kills whatever atmosphere Bubba Gump is trying to create is its chaotic playlist, which jumped from zydeco, the Creole-Cajun music of Louisiana, to Charli XCX. The former is fine and regionally appropriate, but I would have otherwise expected something from the Forrest Gump soundtrack. I’m surprised I didn’t hear “Volunteers” or “Gimme Shelter” or “Fortunate Son” or any other song that is supposed to make me feel like a 19-year-old GI trying not to die in the jungle. Also, why play “Boom Clap” when “Vroom Vroom” is the superior Charli XCX song?
As I marveled at the playlist, Lisa and I got to work on the Mama’s Mango Mojitos we ordered. We both agreed that the drink was overly sweet, like a starter cocktail you could stomach in college but gives you an immediate headache once you are over the age of 24. But hey, Bubba Gump’s isn’t a craft cocktail bar, and overly sweet drinks are par for the course in the heart of Times Square. Neither of us was really complaining anyway because we got to drink in the middle of the afternoon for journalistic purposes.
Next, I attempted to tackle the menu in earnest. Lisa immediately knew she wanted the Dumb Luck Coconut Shrimp (“Bubba’s favorite!” according to the caption on the menu), but as the most indecisive person on the planet, I was experiencing menu anxiety over the pages and pages of seafood combos. Grilled shrimp. Fried shrimp. Grilled shrimp with fried shrimp and some shrimp tempura for good measure. Pastas and jambalayas here, surf n’ turf and charbroiled salmon there. It was overwhelming. Not Cheesecake Factory-level overwhelming, but overwhelming enough that I had to ask the waiter to help me make a decision. I settled on “Forrest’s Seafood Feast.” Clocking in at 1730 calories, the $25 platter—“Voted #1 Guest Favorite!”—includes fried shrimp, fish and chips, and seafood hushpuppies with tartar, cocktail, and remoulade dipping sauces. I ordered it with a side of coleslaw (only 1.29!) because I’m a strong believer in pairing fried foods with dishes that can cut through the heaviness; pickled vegetables, slaws, and other bright sides usually do the trick.
I hung on to the menu after ordering and noticed something kind of funny: There was a section of the menu called Jenny’s Catch, which featured lighter fare like lobster with butter sauce, cajun seasoned mahi-mahi, and grilled salmon. Each dish was under 900 calories, a feat for this restaurant, and it felt deliberately gendered and aimed at women who may want to watch their waistline (in vain, mind you) during their New York City vacation. Considering the fact that Jenny was a Forrest Gump character who experienced sexual abuse, suicidal ideation, and drug addiction before dying (presumably) of AIDS, this was a hell of a way to commemorate her.
Say what you will about bloated chain restaurants, but Bubba Gump’s food was solid. The shrimp and fish were perfectly fried and the fries adequately crisp. The dipping sauces added some needed tang to the cornucopia of fried food and the slaw wasn’t too mayo-heavy. But the biggest surprise for me were the seafood hushpuppies. Hushpuppies—deep-fried balls of cornmeal—are a soul food staple, and I ate them pretty regularly growing up. But let me be real: hushpuppies often come out of the fryer hard, dry, and bland. However, these surprisingly moist seafood hushpuppies, filled with a blend of fish and corn, kicked my ass. I’d happily tear up an entire appetizer portion of them.
Lisa was uncomfortably full by the time I debated ordering dessert. I, too, was wondering if my stomach could take another hit, but once I saw Mama’s Bread Pudding (“No one made it like mama!”), I quickly gave in to temptation. The $10.49, 1390-calorie wonder was also a touch too sweet for my liking, but it was still good and I absolutely demolished it. Even Lisa decided to have a bite when it came out, mint sprig standing upright in a mountain of whipped cream and vanilla ice cream, proving that presentation is everything.
Eating in Times Square can be exorbitantly expensive, but I was surprised that the meal in total was only $86 after tax and before tip (I tipped 20 percent because I’m not a monster). It’s one of the more affordable Times Square restaurants, and at least you’re spending money on food that actually tastes good, which is more than I can say about the other chain restaurants in the vicinity. I can assure you that a meal at Bubba Gumps will trump whatever you get at the Times Square Applebees, Planet Hollywood, or Red Lobster (not including the cheddar biscuits).
There are always reports about traditional chain restaurants dying, going stale, attempting to update their interior to attract younger customers. For this reason, it’s surprising that Bubba Gump is still around and has as many restaurants as it does in 2019. It seems risky to build an entire global dining franchise off of a movie, but Bubba Gump somehow managed to make it work, leaving me hoping that there’s an excuse to go back soon somewhere on the horizon.
My lasting takeaways of Bubba Gumps are as follows:
1. The food is good, go there for happy hour after work whenever someone in your crew has the company credit card.
2. The mascot is a shrimp. This is not the place to get a salad or a chicken sandwich. Unless you’re allergic to shellfish or do not eat it for religious or other purposes, don’t leave without getting a shrimp dish!
3. Not enough “Fortunate Son” on the playlist.
And speaking of the playlist, here’s a playlist of some of the music I heard at Bubba Gump, according to Shazam.