Minnesota invented indoor malls, and we invented Rainforest Cafe. It only serves that the Mall of America branch of the jungle-themed chain restaurant should be the most extravagant of them all. And that used to be the case.
In 2015, the first-floor Rainforest Cafe in the MOA closed with plans to renovate and re-open on the third floor across from fellow Landry's property Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville. The move came as a bit of a surprise, given that the flagship Bloomington location — which had been opened in 1994 by Minnesotan Steven Schussler as the first Rainforest Cafe in the country — had been one of the longest-tenured eateries in the constantly rotating makeup of the mega-mall.
A year and five days after that closing, the updated Rainforest Cafe at the Mall of America will open for business today at 11 a.m.
For the past 22 years, the Rainforest Cafe has served as one of the few unique stops in a decreasingly unique shopping mall. Between the two Gaps and hundred Israeli kiosks, there was at least a place where you could get a mai tai and be accosted by grunting animatronic gorillas. It seemed like an odd decision to move the experience upstairs and slap it between the already crowded restaurant avenue and that weird place where you can get 3D printed action figures of yourself.
When Rainforest Cafe first opened, there were live tropical birds on display. Those were quickly done away with when Landry's took over in 2000, but they kept the beautiful, eye-catching coral reefs that were such a signature of the restaurant intact. The first thing you notice about the new elevated location is that the fish are gone, making the curb appeal of this Rainforest Cafe no stronger than any of the other restaurants in the alley preceding it.
Aside from an expiring lease, the main motivator for the move was, as Rainforest Cafe COO Keith Beitler says in a press release, the "great synergy" between Rainforest Cafe and the other two themed restraunts on the third floor. Beitler told the Strib that the iconic tanks were simply too heavy to migrate, so overall, the whole thing just feels like a bit of a buzzkill. No word on what happened to the fish.
To be fair, there's already one aquarium in the MOA, and the move has allowed the family restaurant some much-needed maturation. Instead of subbing in another tropical attraction, Rainforest Cafe has added big-screen TVs and an overgrown tiki bar that sits right out front, offering people who don't feel like getting their dinner interrupted by a snorting 10-foot bull elephant a reprieve from the busy inside.
At night, the Rainforest Cafe takes on a clubbish feel, with the stars taking over the sky and the gargantuan Olmec head lighting up with mesmerizing LEDs. Is it the kind of place you'd host your bachelor party? If you're one of those "my virginity is a treasure" types, sure. Otherwise, no, but it's still a great place to get drunk and feel like a 10-year-old.
The food is as good as the food ever was. Rainforest Cafe has always leaned more on atmosphere than menu, and that continues to be a trend. A soft opening for the new site featured upscaled items like Kahlua mango pulled pork sliders and tuna poke that aren't on the traditional menu, but it's not clear whether those will become staples. They'd fit in well with the yuppie-leaning milieu of the third floor.
What's unchanged about the new location are the animatronics. They've been reconfigured from the original location, with a family of tigers guarding the restroom and cadre of gorillas whipping into a frenzy every time the thunderstorm kicks in. The animals are still extremely interactive. From the python that leers at browsers in the gift shop to the snow leopard who lounges in the back room, the tried-and-true beasts are still the allure they ever were, even if the new space seems less like a theme park and more like a theme restaurant.
Rainforest Cafe will never not be entertaining. The mix of tequila, Lava Nachos, and the intermittent bleating of a tree frog are enough to take the edge off for anybody. But the new Rainforest Cafe feels like such a downgrade compared to the former first-floor extravaganza. This is the Mall of America. If it isn't absolutely over-the-top, it doesn't belong.