Bonfire bartender Rico Wisner uses smoke to make a cocktail.
Bonfire bartender Rico Wisner uses smoke to make a cocktail. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Bonfire, the new downtown eatery, boasts blowtorch-toting bartenders and an entire menu section devoted to s’mores. Light fixtures are made of vintage fire extinguishers, and art is composed of matchsticks. There are two fireplaces—one with actual flames and another with a faux chute. Eventually, the owners want to add another fire pit to the roof where diners can enjoy their smoke-tinged cocktails and snacks.

The theme itself is, appropriately, smoke-like in that it seeps into everything. In some places, it’s a little too overpowering. In the men’s restroom, for example, a sign reads “Bros Before Hose” next to actual fire-fighting hoses. In the women’s, “Where my hose at?” is spelled out of hose faucet knobs. 

Themed restaurants certainly aren’t new, but they have become strangely niche, esoteric, and often, not intuitively related to the food. The D.C. area, for example, touts restaurants centered around Charlie Chaplin, Teddy Roosevelt, and wood cabins, to name a few. This is an era in which restaurants are “concepts,” after all. But there’s often a thin line between concept and gimmick. Lately, it’s been feeling a little insane. 

“It’s crucial to have a theme,” argues Bonfire co-owner Mike Bramson, whose Social Restaurant Group also runs Provision No. 14 and The Prospect. “For every restaurant we have, there’s been a theme.”

In the case of Bonfire, the fire-and-smoke motif is inspired by a beach bonfire party that Bramson and his wife Christal Bramson hosted the night before their wedding in Jamaica in 2014. The bonfire brought everyone from different parts of their lives together—kind of like, you know, the restaurant aims to do.

Bramson says the theme is a way for the owners and diners to emotionally connect to the restaurant. “It’s more personal. Your heart’s more into it,” he says. That connection gets a little lost if you don’t know the backstory, but Bramson thinks the theme is universal enough that it will invoke patrons’ own memories of campfires or bonfires. 

Meanwhile, restaurateur Alan Popovsky insists Washington likes a theme. “Think about all the events that go on here every year, like the galas. They’re all theme-based,” says Popovsky, who owns restaurants focused around Abraham Lincoln (Lincoln Restaurant), Teddy Roosevelt (Teddy & The Bully Bar), and the founding fathers (Declaration). The former party planner actually met his current business partner putting together his son’s Back to the Future–themed bar mitzvah.

D.C.’s restaurant boom may also be to blame.

“We’ve all gravitated to something that might set us apart from our neighbor, because, let’s face it, there’s restaurants everywhere now,” says restaurateur Reese Gardner

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Gardner believes D.C. is one of the founding U.S. cities of what he calls “conceptual dining” where every aspect of the restaurant revolves around an immersive theme. “Restaurants have always had somewhat of a concept, but I think they’ve been getting more pronounced over the years and more niche-focused,” he says. 

Gardner started getting into themed restaurants with the 2012 opening of Irish Whiskey Public House, which tried to recreate a Dublin pub with details like plaid couches and a taxidermied fox. It did so well that Gardner took a similarly all-encompassing approach at Copperwood Tavern, which looks kind of like you’ve stepped into a wood cabin in Virginia, complete with rusty saws on the walls and a menu full of game. 

When Gardner opened Copperwood Tavern in Shirlington, there wasn’t a lot of this “conceptual dining” in the neighborhood. “You look at what the area is missing and you try to fill the gap,” Gardner says. But that’s changed with the arrival of Hawaiian-themed Hula Girl and street art-themed Palette 22, where artists paint while you eat dinner. 

Gardner has since opened a nautical, party boat–themed restaurant, Orange Anchor, along the Georgetown waterfront, and Union Social in NoMa, which has a transportation and Metro theme. He even had a Pennsylvania-themed restaurant, Second State, which has closed. 

“I don’t know if it’s a fad. I hope not,” Gardner says. “It’s something that everybody’s got to do because D.C. is so new-restaurant driven.” 

Themes are no doubt also a media-made monster. It’s no longer interesting enough to have “craft cocktails” and “farm-to-table” food. Everyone’s doing that. Restaurants trying to stand out are turning to storytelling and sometimes wackiness to attract patrons (and press). 

A lot of people love to hate an over-the-top concept. Mockery and faux-outrage run rampant among the local Twitterati with the mere mention of a theme. When Gardner opened Union Social with train-themed cocktails and Metro signs on the restroom doors, people piled on with jokes and jabs. “The food will be overpriced, late, and may smoke without warning,” one person quipped on Twitter.

Theme weariness is also starting to show on other levels. A summer camp-themed bar was slated to open near Union Market this month—until developer and landlord Edens pulled the plug. Although they declined to share the reason, restaurateur Ian Hilton suggests Edens’ reps found it “too campy.” 

And it might ring some alarm bells that even D.C.’s high priestess of themed restaurant designs says she’s getting a little tired of it.

“I’m all for a really comprehensive, experience-driven environment,” says Maggie O’Neill of design firm SwatchRoom, which has created the looks for Bonfire, Copperwood Tavern, Lincoln, and many others. “But I think it’s gone too far down that rabbit hole now where people are almost repelled by it. They don’t want to be hit over the head with the concept at every turn.”

Sometimes the theme supersedes any actual, practical purpose. At Teddy & The Bully Bar, cocktails are barrel aged for 26 days because Roosevelt was the 26th president. At Declaration, the pizzas are not only inspired by the 13 colonies, but the prices correlate to the year each colony was established: The Virginia pizza costs $16.07 because America’s first colony was founded in Jamestown, Va. in 1607. 

Popovsky admits that he can occasionally get a little carried away. Initially, he wanted to have a big replica of Mount Rushmore on the wall at Teddy & The Bully Bar. O’Neill cautioned that it might look a little too Disney. Instead, she came up with the idea to have a textured wall made up of thousands of mini Mount Rushmores. You only realize what they are if you examine the wall up close. 

And in hindsight, Popovsky recognizes that the penny floor at Lincoln restaurant—made with about a million coins—might also have prioritized theme over function. While it got the restaurant a lot of attention when it opened, pennies are, perhaps unsurprisingly, not the best flooring material. The surface is now falling apart, and Popovsky is looking to replace it with something a little more subtle later this summer. 

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

And then there’s the problematic issue of theming your restaurant around a real person. Less than two months after Charlie Chaplin-themed ramen spot and cocktail bar Chaplin’s opened, the actor’s estate threatened to sue the restaurant over its name, the Washington Post reported. The only change the restaurant has made since then, however, was switching its name from The Chaplin to Chaplin’s. 

Why a Chaplin theme anyway? As owner Micah Wilder told me when the place was preparing to open in 2014, “He’s the most quirky, interesting actor, in my opinion, that ever lived. He captures comedic happiness, sorrow, every human emotion that’s inspirational.”

What the silent film star has to do with ramen and cocktails is still fuzzy. As an opening press release explained, the Asian-inspired cuisine “will take diners on a journey to Japan and Shanghai in the 1920s, when muted films were appreciated globally for embracing and unifying separation thru emotion, expression, comedy, originality, risk, sorrow and entertainment.” If you can make sense of this, you’re ahead of me. 

O’Neill says she’s working on plenty of projects where her clients wanted to take the aesthetics one level too far. “You have to be diplomatic about it, because they’re your clients and it’s their baby,” she says. “Once I’m done, their success really lies on their shoulders and their ability to defend it.”

O’Neill will reveal one project that took the theme too far: Sax, an opulent restaurant and lounge with erotic cabaret and a political-sex-scandal theme that opened about five years ago. Then-owner Errol Lawrence wanted to paint risque murals on the wall, including Monica Lewinsky riding Bill Clinton as a centaur and Justice Clarence Thomas weighing his genitals on the scales of justice next to Anita Hill

“I was like, ‘This is bad, Errol. This is bad, bad, bad, bad, bad like Velvet Elvis bad,’” O’Neill recalls. She refused to paint the murals, but she found the artist who did. “We were trying to shock people with how opulent and over-the-top it was.” Instead, the mural set off a shitstorm. They were almost immediately removed. 

“It took the theme too far. People are too smart in D.C. They don’t actually need it clubbed over their head,” O’Neill says. 

Another concern is that a flashy theme and decor can come at the expense of the food and drinks. So much effort is put toward adhering to a theme that what tastes good can come secondary if the restaurant team isn’t careful.

O’Neill believes that thematic restaurants might soon start to die down. Or at least she’s not sure how it could intensify without becoming a theme park (or Japan, where restaurant themes like prison, cartoons, and vampires are a whole other level of elaborate).

“Concepts that are all-encompassing and experiential, those were very desirable in the last five to seven years,” O’Neill says. Sure, they’re fun to work on—and she’s very proud of many of the designs. But at the same time, she’s starting to see a shift toward a more minimalist aesthetic where not every surface screams the theme. 

“Somebody that’s cool doesn’t have to tell you that they’re cool,” she says. “It’s not hard to create a theme, but it’s hard to create cool.”