Of all the wretched places to visit in New York, Planet Hollywood is king. The moldering eatery’s main entryway—beneath a colossal, glitzy sign that jostles for attention with Times Square’s other lurid neons—leads you to one of two elevators, their doors designed to mimic a subway car’s (as though the real and grimy thing were not a block or two away). One need not feast at a Planet Hollywood to know that the experience will be underwhelming and too expensive, that the earsplitting soundtrack will consist only of pop anthems and Disney theme songs, that there will be a weekly changing burger named the OMG! Burger, and that a visit to the gift shop will make you want to cry. A cursory search of online reviews confirms Planet Hollywood’s status as a dwindling brasserie chain attached to a substandard museum—a place that should no longer exist and yet seems to defy market logic. To quote a recent note on TripAdvisor, “The threat from dust falling from the above decorations was enough to put you off.”
But shortly after moving to America, and for reasons that now evade me, I began dining regularly—and with near-evangelical enthusiasm—at Planet Hollywood Times Square. (This is the city’s only branch, and it has lived here since 2000, after relocating from its original 1991 location on West 57th Street.) I have noshed on spinach dip served in a cocktail glass, and on a pizza whose pepperoni is glistening and wet. I have stopped in for drinks—some of the cocktails, by the way, involve bacon, some chocolate milk, and most have vaguely clever names like Eternal Sunshine, Hawaii Five Ohhh, There’s Something About Mary and Pineapple Express. A couple of titles are less divinely inspired, such as the Red Carpet Margarita. (Also available, for forty-two dollars a bottle, is Vanderpump Rosé, one of Lisa Vanderpump’s wines. If you actually want to get drunk, I recommend that—or a beer.)
Just before Halloween, when dollar-store cobwebs were draped across cases of faded memorabilia, my friends and I paid fifteen dollars for a printout of ourselves clutching pumpkin props. Our fellow patrons, an ambiguous mix of sad-looking young couples and tourist families with teenage kids in tow, stared silently at the ceiling or the floor or their mobile phones, anywhere but each other’s faces, as a dance remix of Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” shook the walls. On Valentine’s Day, a cluster of half-deflated fabric lights emblazoned with HUG ME, KISS ME, and BE MINE were arranged beneath a tawdry button-up shirt that Charlie Sheen, a disgraced misogynist, wore on an episode of Two and a Half Men, a production not so much “Hollywood” as unending, asinine sitcom. Elsewhere, teddy bears were propped clumsily against display cabinets. My favorite bear, splay-legged and smiling, sat atop a see-through box protecting a pair of pink Converse. These had been autographed by former Playboy bunny Holly Madison.
To truly understand Planet Hollywood, you need to know its history. In brief: in the early nineties, Bryan Kestner—a former bit-part actor with credits in a handful of movies, where he played guys whose names were the things they did, like Med Tech or Rookie Cop—approached the film producer and financier Keith Barish. He knew Barish already from the entertainment biz, but this time he had a serious proposition, and he suspected it might make him serious cash. He’d dreamed up a new kind of concept restaurant closely modeled on the success of Hard Rock Cafe, switching out rock artifacts for props and costumes procured from the sets of big films. It would look and feel like a movie set. He would call it Cafe Hollyrock.
The name sucked, and Barish doubtless knew it, but he liked Kestner’s idea. And so, with former Hard Rock Cafe CEO Robert Earl—now host of the Cooking Channel’s Robert Earl’s Be My Guest—he came up with a moniker that felt like their own: Planet Hollywood. (Hard Rock sued anyway, for 1.5 billion dollars, but the suit was unsuccessful. Earl remains CEO of Planet Hollywood International Inc.) Kestner, who has since done occasional executive-producing work (ten episodes on Bravo’s Southern Charm in 2014), claims the big guys kicked him to the curb, giving him minimal shares in the company and eventually requesting he stop attending the chain’s grand-opening parties. His few shares, if he indeed had them, were rendered relatively worthless. When Planet Hollywood went public in 1996, they were valued at thirty-two dollars a share. By 1999, they were valued at less than a dollar.
The early days were full of promise, though it was to be short-lived. Red carpets were rolled out, premiere-like, at openings. A cluster of big-name celebrities orbited the frenzy: Sylvester Stallone, Demi Moore, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. They were often mistaken for legal owners, as opposed to shareholders, which seemed to work in the brand’s favor for a couple years.
The first Planet Hollywood opened in Manhattan in 1991. In 1992, there was one in Orange County, California; the next year, you could find it in Washington, London, Chicago, and Minnesota. By the late nineties, Planet Hollywood was steamrolling its gung ho, rapid expansion into other provinces. It had launched a second Official All Star Café chain that riffed on the same generic concept but using sports. It had partnered with AMC Theatres to launch special Planet Movies cinemas. There were forty-plus Planet Hollywood sites in the U.S., and locations everywhere else imaginable. Planet Hollywoods were dotted through Africa and the Middle East, from Amman to Dubai to Riyadh. They were in San Juan and Niagara Falls, in Berlin, Duisburg, Rome, Valencia, Helsinki, in twelve different Asian cities, and in three spots on Australia’s east coast. It was bloated. Too big.
The downfall came thick and fast. The branch in Aspen, Colorado, shuttered as early as 1998; some of the restaurants attached to merchandise stores never ended up opening. Two years later, Schwarzenegger publicly announced his five-year contract with the brand had expired—he had no ownership interests in the company. “It was lots of fun and very challenging to come up with and develop the celebrity-restaurant concept on an international level,” his statement began. “Of course, I am disappointed the company did not continue with the success I had expected and hoped for.”
In just under three decades, almost a hundred Planet Hollywood shops and restaurants have opened and closed. The company has filed for bankruptcy twice. There are only six stand-alone eateries left, four of them in America. The franchise lives in the only places it can still flourish or, at least, survive: a smattering of unreal tourist traps, like Disneyland Paris and The Forum Shops at Caesars. And yet it is resilient. As recently as 2014, Planet Hollywood Goa opened, a tacky resort with a spa and “heart bar” that “features a large selection of vodkas and other spirits.” On its website, there is a page dedicated to photographs of local celebrities who have visited. Perhaps, in spite of everything that says it should be over, the brand will go on, stubbornly, ad infinitum.
Last Thanksgiving, when the city had emptied out, I begged two fellow expats to join me at Midtown’s saddest for a meal. Against their better judgment, they agreed. At the entrance, the hostess asked if we had a reservation. We did not, and so we waited a few minutes for a table to become available. This is not uncommon practice at Planet Hollywood: there are always at least a dozen empty tables, wiped down and furnished with knives and forks and a printout of an unchanging celebrity quiz produced by OK! magazine. But for a few brief moments, when you arrive, the staff sustain the illusion that this crumbling relic is somewhere a lot of people wish to be. If you don’t ask to sit at the back bar, you’ll be put at the very front of the restaurant, and I am sure this is a deliberate strategy—it ensures that when expectant patrons peer in, the place looks busier than it is.
On Thanksgiving, our small party sat at the bar. After some deliberation, we ordered the nachos grande (shareable) and the Thanksgiving feast (for one). And then we waited. And waited some more. When our dishes finally materialized an hour later—Planet Hollywood, it seemed, was slightly busier than usual, a familiar-sounding destination for tourists in the wake of the Macy’s parade—the waitress teetered uneasily with our plate of nachos before unceremoniously depositing the majority on my companion’s fancy coat. We picked at the remaining bits because even though this was a mangle of canned cheese and lukewarm tortilla chips, things could always be worse. The festive roast was similarly sobering: it was limp beans and too-dry turkey with coagulated gravy lopped onto the side. As my friend later wrote me in an email, he found it “the most family-less of holidays I’ve ever experienced, and I once spent Christmas in Munich with the family of a friend I met on the internet.”
My companions, understandably, have not returned since, but I—I couldn’t help myself. It feels human to root for the underdog in the fine-dining heat map that is New York; visiting regularly is a choice both honorable and sad. What’s more, the place seems to say something bigger about America’s doomsday political temperature, about a national obsession with erecting giant monuments to pop culture and canonizing approximations of fame, propping them up even when they start to fail us. (In some ways, Planet Hollywood is slightly Trumpian: people visit, every day, because of a presumed connection to fame, even though the celebrity endorsements evaporated long ago. All that remains are the LED screens of music videos that the restaurant’s parent company, Planet Hollywood International Inc., has presumably bought the rights to play.)
Here is an incomplete inventory of memorabilia I have observed at Planet Hollywood Times Square. It is incomplete because many items are uncaptioned, and there exists no public list of what is where. One visit, I asked a very friendly waiter to clarify the origins of several items. He tried his best but noted it was an unusual request: people rarely seem to care much about the things surrounding them, only that they are from Hollywood. He said there were some five hundred items held by the restaurant. At my best guess, around a fifth of those are on display at any time.
Overhead, you’ll spy mostly vehicles: a bent-up automobile from Grease 2, a Jet Ski from Waterworld, a hover bike from Judge Dredd, a half-exposed flame-painted car that’s apparently from Wayne’s World 2, the Batwing from Batman Returns, a lot of random planes that say U.S. or ARMY on their bellies and could be from pretty much anywhere. Among and around the tables and red zebra-print carpet, mostly headless mannequins wear the following: two costumes from the Hunger Games franchise, the original Power Rangers suits, a thin beige Ghostbusters jumpsuit made for Dr. Egon Spengler, a black knife-adorned outfit worn by Wesley Snipes in The Expendables 3, the now-bloodless casual garb of Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson in Die Hard with a Vengeance. Some other showstoppers: the yellow jacket, hat, and bra worn by Beyonce’s character, Foxxy Cleopatra, in Austin Powers in Goldmember, a pair of boots from Desperately Seeking Susan, the hat Johnny Depp wears in The Rum Diary.
During my last dinner at Planet Hollywood, I sat with my roommate at a red pleather booth, Batman’s 1992 custom-built air-combat vehicle hovering over us, and finally accepted a sad reality: that this is a place of diminishing returns. I had been paying, repeatedly, to be gastronomically disappointed and aesthetically confused (for irony? as self-flagellation?), and life is too short to stick up for things you don’t even believe in—especially restaurants helmed by TV stars.
Part of the early appeal, if I’m honest with myself, had to do with my coming from somewhere else. Before moving to New York, I had never set foot in America. I had allowed myself—as all foreigners do—to entertain obsolescent myths about the country. America had morphed in my mind from something precise and partly knowable into a giant, nebulous phantasm onto which I projected abstract fantasies and fears. Planet Hollywood, both dazzling and dingy, represented an extreme, larger-than-life version of the America I had halfway expected. It held infinite promise and anguish. Its concrete reality, as a place where I could eat burgers and think about all of this, surrounded by things that seemed to shout AMERICA! was confounding and satisfying to my Australian imagination.
That final night, we ordered a litany of so-bad-they’re-still-bad dishes, as a sort of private three-hour farewell to the venue. (All the food at Planet Hollywood is a loose approximation of food, like someone did a Google Image search on a very slow computer.) We discussed American cupidity and misspent wealth and wondered why the saddest venue in Times Square still tricks its customers into believing it’s busy when they first get there, what the point of any of it is. We began with the recommended High Roller Sampler, which felt macabre to read and to say out loud. It was six appetizers presented on an unmoving metal Ferris wheel. It took up the entire table, so we couldn’t see each other’s faces—just meat and melted cheese. We ate the wheel’s okay prawns and “world-famous” chicken crunch, which was just fossilized poultry and grated carrot, served with Creole mustard. We ate a “flavorful, gooey dip made of Swiss, mozzarellas, provolone, Parmesan and Asiago cheeses” with a surface layer so tough it broke corn chips. We ate Texas Tostados (the correct Spanish term is tostadas) made from gyoza skins, with “drizzled sour cream” strong and thick enough to stand up a little, like a worm. We used the complimentary refresher towels, which reminded me of KFC.
When dessert came—the Planet Meltdown, which costs $14.99—our waiter poured hot caramel sauce over the Easter egg–like sphere of chocolate, revealing cake and whipped cream beneath. It was a rousing ten-second show, and it melted the Planet Hollywood logo—which had been printed onto white chocolate—rendering it an unrecognizable blur of red and blue. And in that logo and its mush, there was the before and after of a gum-wrapper tattoo: something ambitious but ultimately fuzzy, an imitation of a picture that was never really real.