Three brave souls from the Tor Books/Tor.com offices stumbled into the cool autumn air. Their destination? Beetle House, a Tim Burton themed bar and restaurant in Manhattan, stuffed between a few swanky cocktail bars in the East Village. They had a mission—to see if this bar could live up to their haunting, semi-wistful, melancholy dreams.
This is Halloween, folks. Let’s see how the night unfolds….
Here is how our panel of experts thought the evening fared—
Favorite Tim Burton Movie: Edward Scissorhands
Last Tim Burton Movie Seen in Theater: Planet of the Apes (Can you blame me, really?)
I think I like theme restaurants. I’ve been to ones for ninjas, retro-future Mars, and, memorably, an S&M-themed restaurant with chocolate mousse served in stilettos and public birthday spankings. You never go for the food. It’s the experience you’re after. So, a Tim Burton-themed bar made my inner-sixteen-year-old jump up and down in glee. I was the token goth girl in my town. Tim Burton movies sustained me through getting picked last for dodgeball, being shoved in lockers, and not being asked to prom. My high school was a bad John Hughes movie, basically. And I wanted Beetlejuice.
As I grew older, and so did Tim, a “Tim Burton movie” became something really narrow and I wasn’t into it anymore. The cartoonish Halloween spookiness, the sad black-haired misunderstood genius, the wistful blonde ingenue, the forced eccentricity, etc. Sleepy Hollow was the last Tim Burton movie I obsessed over. Which is a long-winded way of saying I was the audience for Beetle House, and I hoped they could remind me of what I once loved about Tim Burton. That might be a lot of pressure for a tiny nerd bar.
First the good: I liked some of the decor — I coveted the crystal chandeliers above the bar and the fan art that hung all over the walls was really, really well-done. The drinks were… less gross than I expected them to be? We were really expecting gross because it’s a cheesy theme restaurant, not a fancy craft cocktail-slinging gastropub. We shared a Big Fish Bowl of rum, blue liquor, and sour mix made to look like an aquarium, complete with Nerd candy “pebbles” and frozen Swedish fish and it was sweet enough to make me want to dance on the ceiling, but not so sweet that I needed an insulin shot. Unfortunately, the sugar theme extended to the entrees and my Cheshire mac n’ cheese had honey in it. As did the pot pie. And I think almost everything else.
But I think I learned why the atmosphere was so low energy; everyone else was crashing from a sugar high!
And that leads to the bad things about Beetle House. It just wasn’t very fun. For the lead-up to Halloween, I expected the place to be more hopping. But it was mostly empty and very quiet. The music was a nice mix of Siouxsie and the Banshees, New Order, and Danny Elfman scores but it could’ve been anywhere in the East Village. We were greeted by an actor dressed as Sweeney Todd who did an admirable impersonation of Evan Peters in American Horror Story in that he was young, cute, and had a terrible British accent. But I guess it could have been Johnny Depp, too. I just don’t think of Johnny Depp for his roles as much anymore, because of all of his recent public divorce drama. So Sweeney Todd walks around and jumps into conversations with diners and scares people and whatnot, which was totally fine… until he said some weirdly racist thing to our table that started about meat pies and ended up with an ugly joke about dogs and Asia. Yeah, that was unappetizing.
And the puns were so bad and so lazy. Edward Burgerhands? Edward Burgerhands, are you fucking kidding me? Burgers aren’t even remotely appendage-like, okay? Maybe chicken kebabs would’ve made sense. But not a burger topped with no fewer than eleven different kinds of cheese, meat, and vegetables stacked so high you’d have to unhinge your jaw like a snake to eat it. I guess my “Chesire Mac n’ Cheese” was so named because it was rather mysterious how the center of my dish was molten hot but the edges were room temperature and gluey. There were also a ton of Sweeney Todd meat references and “Showtime Shrimp Quesadilla.” Because Beetlejuice said “Showtime!” in that movie. GET IT? IT’S THAT THING THAT CHARACTER SAID ONCE. There were no Pee-Wee’s Happy Face pancakes or Melancholy Oyster-Boys on the half shell. There wasn’t even shrimp cocktail which is literally the #1 food-related scene in a Tim Burton movie. Come on. By the time we got to the bottom of the entree list, no fucks nor puns were given; “Steak Taquitos” warned the menu, as if the steak taquitos found here were daring you to question why they weren’t “Steak Ta-BEET-os.”
Enraged by uncreative food names, I ordered a chocolate martini to soothe the monster within me that demanded a fresh sugar fix. The menu said it came topped with a chocolate bar, but there was none. THERE WAS NONE. Also the bathrooms were distressingly damp and toilet paper-strewn despite the place being open for only a half hour. Happy Halloween, Beetle House. You managed to make me dislike Tim Burton even more than I did before I walked in. (Tim Burton is in no way officially affiliated with or Beetle House, nor has he endorsed it. Which is wise.)
Favorite Tim Burton Movie: Also Edward Scissorhands
Last Tim Burton Movie Seen in Theaters: Dark Shadows (better than people give it credit for being, for my money)
I have not been to many theme restaurants because I’m typically a stickler for quality, and theme restaurants have an unfortunate tendency to skate by on the silliness of their premise and often neglect everything else.
Okay, so I frequented the Rainforest Cafe as a kid, but I’m pretty sure everyone had the childhood theme restaurant that they always ran to in the mall.
I’ve been a fan of Tim Burton since before I actually knew who he was; I watched Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre as a tiny child, and adored their rendition of Aladdin—which oddly enough starred Leonard Nimoy, Robert Carradine, and James Earl Jones. (This was before I’d had the chance to watch Star Wars or Star Trek, mind you.) It also happened to be one of Tim Burton’s earliest directing gigs. Burton movies were comforting for me as a kid, partly due to that outsider patina that drew all the weirdos and offbeat geeks, and partly due to the fact that it felt kinda… hyper-real? I guess the lens that he placed over the world made sense to me.
So I walked into Beetle House hoping that it might give me the chance to sit in that world for while. As Theresa said, some of that decor was spot on, art that I would be happy to have in my apartment (including that hilarious painting of Beetlejuice and Lydia as the American Gothic couple). There was a weird Burton-y sculpture hanging over the bar that made me wish I had a big house with a foyer to hang it in, frightening all my potential houseguests. *points to the top image*
We were committed to that Big Fish Bowl of blue liquor because we had to say we had attacked the grossest-seeming thing on the menu. While sipping occasionally was doable and the flavor wasn’t atrocious, attempting to suck down more than a teaspoon made my whole body convulse. Not sure if it was the sugar or the blueness. The drink was supposed to be for two people, but we barely managed to finish it between the three of us. The Nerds and Swedish Fish at the bottom of the bowl were a nice touch, but not exactly workable. We actually tried to eat some of the Swedish Fish later, but they were slimy and liable to pull out your teeth until they warmed up in your mouth. Ew.
I wasn’t super hungry, so I ordered a dish called “Mad Shrimp” (not quite sure about the reference there) because it seemed small. After Leah and Theresa’s plates had been delivered, a great big ball of fire swooped toward me and landed on the table—the dish was a tiny cast iron pan of mofongo (fried mashed plantains), chorizo, and shrimp, surrounded by a thick salt ring that they lit on fire to cook the shrimp just right. It was basically the highlight of my evening, probably because I had no warning that it was coming. On the other hand, it seems like a lawsuit waiting to happen when one of your dishes is A GIANT BALL OF FIRE. It’s a pretty tight space in there, and the tables are small. Someone’s bound to lean over when they shouldn’t.
The shrimp was tasty, the chorizo was to die for, and the mofongo was weirdly over-sweetened, just like the mac’n’cheese. Something about the sauce they put on it. Our server was a super nice lady, though. Sweeney Todd came over to our table a few times to be awkward at us (and offer up that uncool comment that Theresa mentioned above—I mean, I get that it’s hard to be off-the-cuff all evening, but seriously?) He kept handing everyone very wink-wink lines about how “Mrs Lovett was in the kitchen and the food was going to be delicious.” Uh-huh. Speaking of which, if you have a pot pie on the menu and it’s not named “Have A Little Priest Pot Pie” then you’re not really doing your job. I know copyright infringement is a thing, but we weren’t even in the same galaxy of referential material here.
The music was awesome and the walls were pretty, but the whole thing felt… wrong. Like you told your wedding planner that you wanted a Burton-themed reception, then arrived at your venue to find that they’d looted a party store of everything with “goth” or “macabre” in the name. It didn’t help that the place was incredibly small—perhaps a little more breathing room would have given them the ability to really go all out. But as it was, I was happy that my chocolate martini was on the strong side to wipe the slate a little.
Oh, and pro-tip? That Big Fish Bowl that I barely had a third of gave me a nasty headache all day the next day. So maybe no to that one.
Favorite Tim Burton Movie: A toss-up between Ed Wood and Sleepy Hollow. I think Ed Wood is Burton’s best film, and I love the “weird ‘50s” vibe, but the lush gothic-ness of Sleepy Hollow just wraps around me like a perfect sweater. (We all agreed over dinner that Sleepy Hollow was “peak Burton”.)
Last Tim Burton Movie Seen in Theaters: Sweeney Todd! I was lucky enough to see it on Broadway, but I still enjoyed this version. Helena Bonham Carter is a fantastic Mrs. Lovett.
I think the only theme restaurants I’ve been to are Hard Rock Cafes, if that counts? And in comparison to those, Beetle House was amazing. However, I do think it could stand to be even more Burtonesque. So, I’ll start with the highlights and work down.
The décor is perfect! That was really the highlight for me—every wall was covered with Burton-themed paintings, my favorites being that Beetlejuice and Lydia Deetz as the couple in American Gothic and the portrait of Zero, Sparky from Frankenweenie, and Scraps from Corpse Bride highlighted above, plus one of Sally painted as one of Margaret Keane’s “Big Eyes” characters. The art was the introduction to the restaurant, as we were looking at all of it before we ate, and it really did set a great mood because I loved the way old and new Burton was swirled together. We were seated beneath this gal:
“Blue Girl with Wine”, which was an oil painting of Burton’s that was featured in his MoMA exhibit a few years ago. I also love the giant grinning head that hangs over the bar, and the odd medieval-looking torture devices that were scattered about were also appreciated.
As Theresa mentioned, the music a mix of Danny Elfman soundtracks from every era of his work with Burton, and classic Gothy tracks from The Cure, Joy Division, and Nine Inch Nails. So, good. But given that it’s Halloween week, I think blasting The Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack or, hell, Sweeney Todd, and encouraging a sing-along would have given the night the energy we were looking for. We’re coming into the Christmas season, too, so putting Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns into heavier rotation would be a nice way to be seasonal without beating people over the head with it.
As for the menu—it wavered between Sweeney Todd’s macabre humor, complete with blood platters—and sort of almost-there puns that need more specificity. If you’re going to bother with a theme restaurant, why not go all the way, and use your menu for some serious deep dive puns that tell your clientele of Tim Burton fans that you’re sharing a joke. That’s what you want in this kind of an experience—a nod of recognition between you and the person at your restaurant.
I know that Tim Burton loves kitschy ‘50s and ‘60s artifacts like Tiki culture, Hawaiian movies, and Las Vegas shows. The original sequel to Beetlejuice was going to be Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian, and it was essentially going to be an Elvis movie, but with Beetlejuice. Obviously, no studio was going to make that, but the idea’s pretty fun. So for me, the Big Fish Bowl worked because it was a ridiculously over-the-top Tiki drink, mashed up with a reference to a later, less iconic Burton film, plus, come on, it’s a bowl of rum with Swedish Fish and Nerds. I also did not have the headache issues that Emily mentioned above, but please bear in mind that I’m part hummingbird.
Now, the “We Come in Peace” on the other hand—a perfectly good drink. (It was super sweet, but that’s what I like, especially on a cold autumn night.) But it felt like the Mars Attacks reference was just sort of slapped on. Why not name it the “AK! AK!” and allow fans to figure it out? Or look it up? We all have phones—make us work for it!
Since Sweeney Todd was our host for the evening, I thought ordering the “I Love It” pot pie was only appropriate. (But I’ll admit I kind of killed the joke by ordering it without meat.) It was very good, but more of a deconstruction of a pot pie than the traditional dish—a thick vegetable stew with large pieces of cornbread floating in it. On the plus side, though, I could literally eat that stew-saturated cornbread every day for the rest of my life and die happy. And the brownies were fantastic, but didn’t have punny names.
So, in conclusion, more puns! More singing! Don’t be afraid to go full weird, Beetle House. Burton fans will follow you.