Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth
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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

Nobody Would Come With Me to Planet Hollywood But I Would Not Be Deterred

Illustration: Elena Scotti (Photos: Getty Images, Shutterstock, Kelly Faircloth)
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I’ve done some silly shit in my life, but I’m not sure anything quite matches the feeling of sidling up to the reservation check-in station on the sidewalk outside the Times Square Planet Hollywood and asking whether it would be possible to get a table for one.

I didn’t want to go to Planet Hollywood by myself, exactly; it’s just that I had been tasked with launching Welcome to the Neighborhood, our summer series reviewing the attractions around Jezebel’s new home in the heart of Times Square, and my coworkers kept mysteriously having “plans.” (Jezebel’s Editor-in-Chief, Julianne, insisted she had to go play Dungeons & Dragons, a claim that I find highly suspicious.) But as the parent of a small child, I’m not exactly disappointed when I have an opportunity to sit by myself in glorious silence without sharing my food.

Turns out, it was very, very easy to get a table for one at Planet Hollywood last minute on a Wednesday night. At first, they sent me to the bar, at which point I had to return and inform them that the bar was full and request a proper table for one, prolonging the excruciating experience of inquiring about solo dinner at Planet Hollywood.

Bruce Willis at the 57th Street Planet Hollywood circa 2000
Bruce Willis at the 57th Street Planet Hollywood circa 2000
Image: Getty

Locals clearly aren’t a core constituency of the Times Square location. To my left sat a British family, plotting their plans for the next day; to my right sat a French couple. At one point, a large group of middle schoolers in matching New York City trip shirts trooped through to the group seating section.

Planet Hollywood is among the most dated places imaginable, falling into the valley between new and fashionably dated. Its red-and-black animal stripe carpet has faded. A giant round room full of flashing lights and loud music decorated in cheerfully lurid shades of red and blue, it evokes a nightclub, but it’s bright and full of children, wholly PG. Imagine sitting down to dinner in a version of Studio 54 without the sex or cocaine or celebrities in the flesh, with the house lights on. Imagine a hangout for cool teens on a kids show from the late 1980s, like if Zack from Saved by the Bell became a nightlife impresario.

To say that it’s a shrine to the 1990s almost suggests a degree of retrospect that it does not possess; it’s more time capsule. Planet Hollywood was first imagined by a film producer in a clear attempt to chase the success of the Hard Rock Café, and in fact was launched in partnership with Hard Rock owner Robert Earl; its logo t-shirts were almost equally an iconic element of 1990s fashion. The experiment was blatantly tied to the star power of ‘80s action heroes; Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Willis all got a slice of the business in exchange for doing promotional work. Even today the name evokes punches thrown on big movie screens and escaping the summer heat outside—despite the fact that it’s really more like the experience of watching Starz late in August, so bored you’re actually ready to go back to school and start doing homework.

But it just never quite had the same stubborn traction of the Hard Rock; despite celebrity investors, glitzy openings, and its eventual growth to 87 locations across the globe, it eventually collapsed into bankruptcy and there are now just nine locations. The New York outpost isn’t even in its original 57th Street location, having moved to 45th Street, just off Times Square and sharing space with Buca Di Beppo, which is owned by the same parent company. It’s a backwater of the brand, a dying town along the remains of Route 66; any real remaining action is at the Planet Hollywood Las Vegas Resort & Casino, which is actually owned by Caesars (which licenses the brand name from the original founder).

But what a backwater!

The space is full of artifacts from the movies, in display cases. As you sit, the screens around you play a looping tour of the objects as they appear on display around you, interspersed with clips from movies in which they were featured. I documented a few:

  • Sword, Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet
  • Shirt, Enter the Dragon
  • Straightjacket, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  • EMS badge and US Marshal badge, Eraser
  • Ice pick as seen in Basic Instinct
  • Dumbbell weight, Batman Returns
  • Mini submarine, The Hunt for Red October
  • Gotham police badge, Gotham
  • Shirt, Don Juan Demarco
  • American flag, The Gangs of New York
  • Motorcycle, Blade
  • Alien and alien spaceship monitor, Independence Day

There is absolutely no rhyme or reason to this reel in its composition or arrangement. When I entered, they were showing a clip from The Seven Year Itch; I never did quite figure out the Planet Hollywood collection prop that was being touted—it wasn’t the famous dress. The entire library of clips probably took an hour to run through, at which point it started over. The most recent movie I saw featured was the first Hunger Games, which debuted in 2012.

Despite the temptation to order the “L.A. Lasagna” and sample the taste of Los Angeles as rendered in red sauce, I opted for the BBQ Bacon Cheddar, $19.99, which was pretty good, if so totally messy that my fingers felt sticky until I discovered the wet wipe nestled among the extra napkins. The fries weren’t really salty enough, considering Planet Hollywood is basically a higher-concept Applebees and likely provides a week’s worth of recommended sodium intake.

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I capped it all off with some sort of brownie cheesecake concoction in a mason jar with a handle, dubbed a “star jar” in keeping with the lackadaisical Hollywood-related naming. It was sadly mediocre, stranded somewhere between pudding and the more solid texture one typically associates with brownies and cheesecakes, both. This surprised me, because Applebee’s-style restaurants typically excel at desserts that are basically a brownie, some ice cream, and a pound of hot fudge sauce in a bowl. I wish I’d gone to the nearby Junior’s, instead, or perhaps opted for the “Cool Planet (R) Martini Sundae,” billed as “a tasty celebration the whole table can share!” and much closer to the type of dessert I’d pictured.

The drink menu is where you really see the absolute flattening that is key to the Planet Hollywood experience, however, like dining in the middle of a jumble of Amazon search results. Options listed on the drink menu include: Hawaii Five Ohhh; Eternal Sunshine; If You Like Pina Coladas; Red Carpet Margarita; There’s Something About Bloody Mary; Pineapple Express; Celebrity Margarita; It’s Showtime Mojito; The Perfect Storm. Personally, in honor of all my many years of summertime TCM viewing, I opted for the Dr. Zhivago Mule, though really it should have been some sort of white Russian style cocktail to justify the name. It was cool and refreshing, however, suitable for summer, which is not a season I remotely associate with the movie Dr. Zhivago.

What’s particularly weird about the drink menu is the degree to which it isn’t micro-targeted like so many other experiences. They didn’t even stick to a single cutesy rubric, tossing in concepts like “Celebrity” alongside specific movie titles and, in one case, a song lyric. Pineapple Express is the same as Dr. Zhivago at Planet Hollywood.

It’s dated, too, among the digital fantasia of the surrounding Times Square. Corporate experiences have advanced so much—forget going to a restaurant dedicated to the accumulated output of Hollywood, you can go around the corner to the M&M store, or the Hershey store, or the Disney store, or the Sephora store. Everywhere you are surrounded by enormous digital screens that make the special effects in those 1990s action movies look downright rudimentary. The effect is almost as though you were disembodied, uploaded into a vast online shopping portal.

For a place so utterly dedicated to fantasy, Planet Hollywood, by contrast, is strangely corporeal. There are actual objects enshrined in those cases. Compared to the modern Avengers, who tend toward the exaggerated proportions of the comic book characters they play, the testosterone-sweating bodies of the great 1990s action heroes are almost poignantly human. Bruce Willis dashing through the subway in Die Hard With a Vengeance, even the half-melted human skin of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2 look somehow approachable now. All those planes lazily circling overhead, the subway car tossed by a transparently fake King Kong in the 1976 remake—here’s at least some piece of matter.

I highly recommend the happy hour.