Themed restaurants are very much en vogue in Beijing.
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine offered to take me to one. She told me it was a 1980s restaurant, and that I had to be sure to bring ID. Only ‘80s babies allowed.
I was trying to envision what an ‘80s nostalgia restaurant would look like. As an American kid, I grew up with Nickelodeon cartoons and Boy Meets World, but the 1980s in China were what? Tian’anmen Square and Reform and Opening? My cultural reference points were somewhat lacking. I had no idea what to expect.
We caught the subway into a more central part of town and leaving the busy streets behind, followed my friend’s smartphone map through ever-narrowing side roads. In the middle of a neighborhood, we turned into a small alley between apartment buildings, walked past a public restroom, and turned a corner. It was a fairly ordinary Beijing alley: cement walls and narrow roads, little shops and their proprietors sitting outside. Except for the large crowd of twenty- and thirty-something Chinese people milling about, we might have been anywhere.
A man with a rockstar ponytail was sitting by the door, checking reservations and handing out oversized pieces of paper, formatted like a Chinese grade-school exam: the menu.
The staff was in the middle of cleaning out the restaurant for the next round of diners. Everyone loitered outside, waiting until they finished and the doorman began to call roll. As he shouted names, groups piped up with “present!” and filed into the restaurant.
This building had been remodeled to look like an elementary school classroom: blackboards on the walls, a hopscotch mosaic on the floors, a Chinese flag over the blackboard, pictures of Lu Xun on the wall, an old arcade video game console sitting dark between the tables. Groups of adults were crowded into small wooden desks and chairs.
The back room had posters of movie stars and rock bands from the 80s; the walls and door were all covered with graffiti, a mix of English and Chinese writing stretching up to the ceiling. Unlike a typical restaurant where tables turn over regularly, everyone was let in at once, squeezed in all together around desk-tables. It was one long dining experience, a kind of interactive performance dining, on display once a night. Reservations required.
The “teacher” waved a wooden pointer around, summoned the class monitor to put any unruly “students” back in line, and barked commands while the diners worked to contain their giggles. He was imposing and hilarious. “Students! Class begins!” Much of what he said went over my head, but I got the gist of it, and my friend Jade helped fill in some of the gaps.
The restaurant sold bags of favors shaped like uniform shirts, tied with a red scarf. Jade told me about the red ties students had to wear around their necks when she was in elementary school, the class inspections, and how students would get demerits for forgetting to wear theirs.
I recognized ring pops and push pops among the packets of candy – a cultural commonality. Jade told me the wind-up jumping frog was a toy every Chinese child had. Finally, there were multicolored rocks that looked like jawbreakers. The teacher hit them together at the front of the room, causing a shower of sparks.
Dinner ended with a trivia contest. The tables transformed into teams, each with a buzzer rigged to ring in. The questions were all about Japanese anime characters and movie scenes, video games and television shows. I was no help, but the diners at other tables scrambled to be first to buzz in with the answer.
When we left nearly three hours later, it was dark outside, and the competition was still going.