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CityWalk – Hard Rock Cafe

What: American casual cuisine
Where: Across the waterway
Price Range: $$ - $$$
Hours: 11:00 a.m. to midnight (kitchen closes at midnight)
Reservations: None
Web: www.hardrockcafe.com

The immense structure across the water, with the peculiar hodgepodge architecture, the Caddy sticking out of the facade, and the huge electric signs, is the world’s largest and busiest Hard Rock Cafe. Those who have visited other Hard Rocks will know what to expect — just expect more of it. For the uninitiated, the Hard Rock Cafe is a celebration of rock and roll history and lifestyle that has become an international marketing and merchandising phenomenon. From its auspicious beginnings in London’s Mayfair section, Hard Rock has grown to a mega-chain, with restaurants in virtually any city that has pretensions to world-class status.

The Hard Rock’s primary claim to fame is its extensive and ever-growing collection of rock memorabilia that is lovingly and lavishly displayed. As befits the largest Hard Rock in the world, the Orlando outpost has some spectacular mementos. After your meal, take the time to wander about and drink it all in. The staff won’t mind; they’re used to it. If you’re lucky, they will be running free tours of the memorabilia collection.

There is dark paneling and deep carpeting on the floors and winding wooden staircases. There are rich gold frames on the photos, album covers, gold records, and other memorabilia that fill every inch of wall space. “Rock and roll is here to stay,” they like to say. “We’ve got it screwed to the walls!” Upstairs, take note of the two circular rooms, one at each end, dedicated to the Beatles and the King. There’s even an elegant wood-paneled library.

At the heart of the restaurant, downstairs, is a circular bar open to the second level. A magnificent 1961 pink Cadillac convertible spins lazily over the bar and above that is a splendid ceiling mural straight out of some domed chapel at the Vatican. Except that here the saints being serenaded by the angels are all dead rock stars, most of whom died from drug overdoses. To one side is a trio of towering stained glass windows paying homage to Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis. All in all, this expansive Hard Rock has the look and feel of a very posh and very exclusive men’s club — which is perhaps what rock and roll is, after all.

Tip: If your party is small, the bar is an excellent place to eat. The bar offers the full menu and quicker seating when the place is crowded. A seat here gives you an excellent vantage point from which to soak up the ambiance. If the downstairs bar is full, there is another upstairs.

The Hard Rock Cafe is also justly famous for its American roadhouse cuisine, which gives a nod to the black and southern roots of rock. Burgers, barbecue, and steak are the keynotes, with sweet and homey touches like milk shakes, root beer floats, and outrageous sundaes. It’s no wonder the place was an instant hit when it opened in the midst of London’s culinary desert. The menu also reminds us that, in its heyday, rock’s superstars were scarcely more than kids. This is teenybopper comfort food prepared by expert cooks for people who can afford the best.

Probably the heart of the menu is the selection of barbecue dishes ($12 to $24), with the chicken and ribs combo a popular favorite. For those who prefer their barbecue Carolina-style, there’s a pulled-pork pig sandwich. A big step up in sophistication are steaks like the succulent New York Strip.

Of course, if you’re still a teenager at heart, you’ll order a burger ($10 to $15). The best is the Hickory BBQ Bacon Cheeseburger, but there’s also a Veggie Burger to keep Sir Paul happy. If you want to return to your pre-cholesterol-crisis youth, you’ll have a milk shake or a root beer float with your burger. The fries that go with them are very good, too.

Tip: Root beer floats aren’t on the menu, but they’ll whip one up if you ask nicely.

Lighter appetites can be satisfied with one of the appetizers ($7 to $18) or a salad ($10 to $12), while bigger appetites can order a small Caesar salad to go with their entree. But save room for dessert ($6 to $8) because the HRC Hot Fudge Brownie lives up to its fabled reputation.

Your meal comes complete with a soundtrack, of course, and the excellent choice of songs leans heavily to the glory days of rock in the late sixties and early seventies. Television monitors, dotted around the restaurant and gold-framed like the rest of the memorabilia, identify the album from which the current track is taken. The volume has been turned up (this is rock and roll, after all) but not so high as to make conversation impossible.

No self-respecting Hard Rock Cafe would be without a shop hawking Hard Rock merchandise, and this one has two. They are labeled simply Hard Rock Store in big bold letters. Believe it or not, the shops sometimes have lines just like the restaurant and they are handled the same way, with a roped-off queue filled with people who can’t wait to add another Hard Rock shot glass to their growing collection.

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Universal Orlando 2011


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