Opry Mills, Entrance 3. 514-3000
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon-Thurs.; 10:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun.
Within the reams of paper my third-grader brought home his first week of school was a list of field trips planned for the upcoming year. The first immediately caught my eyeRainforest Cafe: Tour and Lunch. It was the answer to my dilemma: how to review the newest theme restaurant to enter the Nashville market.
If you’ve been to one theme restaurant, haven’t you been to them all? Does a chicken finger by any other nameTalledega Tenders at NASCAR, Chicken Crunch at Planet Hollywood, Love Me Tenders at Hard Rock, Caribe Coconut Chicken at Rainforesttaste any different? Along with the standard theme-restaurant menu, the concept of each establishment is essentially the same as well: an overload of visual and aural stimulation, perky servers in some type of uniform, and, of course, a gift shop.
But Rainforest Cafe differs in a few respects. For one, it boasts a Culinary Advisory Council (including star chef Mario Batali) that apparently helps devise the restaurant’s menu items. Perhaps this accounts for the fact that Rainforest presents a larger, more diverse menu than its themed counterparts. There is even a freestanding juice bar that offers fresh-squeezed juices, smoothies, and specialty coffee drinks.
More than its competitors, Rainforest emphasizes an educational and philanthropic approach to its chosen theme. With the aid of a real, live, colorful macaw, select employees intermittently present an overview of the world’s rainforests, their inhabitants, and the dangers they face, offering encouragement to support their preservation through recycling and environmental friendliness. Proceeds from the restaurant’s Wishing Pond are donated to a variety of earth-friendly organizations through the not-for-profit Friends of the Future Foundation.
That doesn’t mean the Rainforest Cafe forsakes the bottom line. Unlike the local Hard Rock, Planet Hollywood, and NASCAR establishments, the Rainforest’s Retail Village is unavoidable, on a direct path into the restaurant. Managers direct the lines of people waiting for a tableas long as two hours at peak timesthrough the aisles of T-shirts, jackets, coffee mugs, keychains, and toys. This is a blatant shill aimed at impatient children who might be quieted with the purchase of a parrot puppet.
School field trips are part of the Rainforest’s educational outreach program, and during our 60-minute tour conducted by server Allison and the macaw, we were treated to an informative presentation. The children were vastly entertained, and each went home with a nifty Rain Forest Explorers Guide.
For the $7.94 paid by each student, they were also fed. Teachers and chaperoning parents were impressed by how smoothly the Rainforest serviced 80 third-graders. A portion of the dining room was set aside for us, the colorfully painted tables were preset with napkins and take-home cups, and even before the group was seated, servers were carting the three essentials of kid cuisinelarge platters of waffle fries, Jurassic Chicken Tidbits (breaded chicken pieces shaped like dinosaurs), and Paradise Kids Pizza (a thin-crusted version with chunky marinara sauce and four types of cheese)to every table.
The servers were patient, cheerful, and incredibly efficient. The food? Nothing to rave about, but no complaints either. All of the adults enjoyed their pita sandwiches, salads, and burgers.
As for the kids, well, here is where I turn over the podium to them. My thanks to Mrs. Vonda Dunn’s third-grade class, who upon their return to Percy Priest Elementary School tried their hand at the fine art of restaurant criticism. The chicken fingers and waffle fries were big winners; the pizza, which my own son described as “looking like bloody skin and tasting like it too,” got a near unanimous thumbs-down from the kiddie corpsthanks in large part to the chunks of actual tomato in the sauce.
All in all, the children did so well, I’m considering taking them along to P. F. Chang’s. Here’s what they had to say:
“I liked the chicken fingers because the outside was tender. I did not like the waffle fries because they did not have flavor. The pizza was so-so because the cheese was too salty.”Renisha
“I loved the chicken fingers because they were crunchy. I liked the shape of them. I also liked the tables. They had cool animals on them. I loved the French fries because they were shaped like waffles. The servers were nice. I had a great time.”Alyssa
“I really liked the Rainforest Cafe. Their food was good. They had good service. Their chicken fingers were very good because they were crunchy and spicy.”Graham
“I did not like the pizza because it had tomatoes. I did not like the fries because they were a little bit burned. I liked the servers and the tables.”Neil
“I did not like the pizza because it was flat and small and there was parmesan cheese on it. The waffle fries were delicious because they were full of potatoes, and I love potatoes. The chicken was good, and the spice was good. I loved the chocolate chip cookie because I love chocolate. The Rainforest was great.”Suzanne
“The food was great! The chicken fingers were pretty good. The waffle fries were very good. I loved the lightning; it was really cool. The snake in front was really cool. The tables were really, really cool. I had a great time. The servers worked very hard.”Carter
“The Rainforest Cafe was really a good experience. My favorite thing was the chicken tenders because they were very crisp. I didn’t care for the pizza because I didn’t like the chunks in it. The French fries tasted more like potatoes. I didn’t care for them too much. The tables were really decorative. The service was very nice. It was a lot of fun. I would like to go back.”Katherine
“The pizza was not that good because of the chunks of tomato, but all the rest was good. My favorite was the chicken fingers because they were shaped like dinosaurs. The fries were good too. I liked them because they were shaped like waffles.” Dylan
“The food was great, but the pizza had tomato sauce. The cookies were the last thing we ate. The service was great.”Antwanara
“The Rainforst Cafe was great! I mostly liked the chicken fingers. They were nice and crunchy, also very tender. The pizza was OK, but it had sauce I wasn’t very crazy about. I also liked the service because the people were very nice. I also liked the waffle fries. They tasted like they used real potatoes.”Grace Anne
“The Rainforest Cafe has very nice service. The chicken fingers were crispy and tender. The fries were good, and they made them in cool shapes. On the pizza, they could use different sauce and no tomatoes.”James
“The pizza tasted a little strange because it had tomatoes in it, and I have never tasted pizza like that before. I liked the servers because they were really nice and funny.”Matthew
“I loved the chicken fingers because the chicken was tender, and it was not spicy. I did not like the pizza because it had big chunks of tomato sauce.”Lia
“I wasn’t very crazy about the pizza; the cheese was not very good [and] there were big chunks. I loved the chicken fingers. I did not like the inside of the fries. The cookies I did not like. The tables were cool. I liked the bird and the fish; they were pretty.”Casey
“The Rainforest Cafe was a blast! The chicken fingers were tender. The fries were OK. The service was great!”Max
“I liked the fingers because they were not that spicy. I did not like the pizza because of the tomato sauce. I liked the Rainforest Cafe because of the waffle fries and the servers; they were great.”Joshua
“I liked all the nice food. Some of the moving animals were cool. I liked the tables, but one thing I didn’t like was all the lights flashing inside the place. It made me kind of mad. I had fun. I hope you did too.”James
“The chicken fingers were delicious because they were cooked well and I liked the shapes. I liked the waffle fries. I didn’t really like the pizza. I’m not sure why, but I just didn’t like it! I liked how the gorillas would look around and blink at you. The service was very nice. I liked how they came to refill the drinks. The cookies were terrific!”Kayla
“The tables were cool because they had animals. The chicken fingers were perfect. The cookies were great. I didn’t like the pizza because I don’t like pizza.”Mitch
Mitch would starve to death in my house.