By the time I realized the gun was jammed, it was too late. The zombies vaulted over the saloon bar and galloped toward me. The gun wouldn’t reload. The undead were on me. Blood blurred my vision and the screen informed me I was dead. I removed my headphones and virtual-reality goggles and went to eat some carrot hummus.
Whether it was Dave & Buster’s, Chuck E. Cheese’s, or just the local arcade-roller-rink-pizzeria, if you grew up in the 1980s and ’90s, the memories of some specific food-and-fun multiplex probably warms your heart like the soundtrack of Stranger Things. Philadelphia’s Mad Rex, which opened in October, wants in on that space. But instead of making an appeal to nostalgia, like the popular bar-arcades that keep cropping up, its coterie of Florida-based investors sunk their capital into virtual-reality programming and opened the first VR-equipped restaurant in the country.
It’s a reasonable business move: Tech companies from Apple to Imax are bullish on virtual and augmented reality, with Goldman Sachs analysts estimating the industry at $80 billion by 2025. Mad Rex’s other accomplishment — being the first post-apocalyptic-themed restaurant in the country — is something else.
The restaurant describes itself as:
...a meeting place, dining haven, and watering hole for revelers from “all walks of life.” -where SURVIVORS indulge in food + drink at an urban outpost. An environment where patrons are encouraged to create their own “interactive rites” through virtual reality. Where despite the fallout there’s still a sense of food, culture, community and ART that still thrives. A sanctuary where urbanites are encouraged to create & share their own experiences. Where the food is locally sourced, the cocktails surprise you, and you feel like this is the ultimate stop in the post apocalypse. A true experience to live for.
Mad Rex — short for Restaurant Entertainment Xperience — occupies 8,500 square feet of the former Ajax metalworks in Philly’s thriving Fishtown neighborhood. The place looks like what would happen if the prop departments of Mad Max, The Walking Dead, Terminator, 28 Days Later, Blade Runner, 12 Monkeys, The Handmaid’s Tale, and V for Vendetta exploded. A helicopter carriage dangles like a chandelier over one dining area. Near the entrance, a candy-colored column turns out to be the fuselage of a Cessna jet, “crashed” through the roof, blanketed in graffiti by a local artist and equipped with a fog machine to emit smoke from the tail every 15 minutes.
Twin weapons cabinets display a militia fantasy of hunters’ knives, battle axes, daggers, bats wound with barbed wire, and replica guns. Mannequin torsos impaled on rods wear dust-crusted bomber jackets, bullet bodices, and fearsome gas masks — it’s like being in Planet Hollywood, except none of these are costumes from actual films. Mad Rex’s owners spent a year scouring online auctions and amassing the macabre decor.
The restaurant seats over 200 between its long concrete bar, huge horseshoe booths, and high-top tables flanked by pretty wood and wrought-iron chairs. The virtual-reality lounges are off to the side. One is for private events. The other anyone can dip into to escape to a haunted house, sinking submarine, meditative desert, or a dozen other digital realms for $2 a minute. At the back of the space, a long rectangular window separates the dining room from the “Survivors Kitchen,” which is pretty much just a regular restaurant kitchen with regular restaurant cooks wearing regular restaurant uniforms.
Outside, a boom truck modified with barbed wire and cargo nets, looking like a Mad Max set piece, glows in purple light on the restaurant’s sidewalk. You can’t miss it driving down Columbus Boulevard, one of Philly’s busiest north-south corridors, or Frankford Avenue, the spine around which Fishtown, a former manufacturing hub, has reinvented itself in the bones of derelict warehouses and factories. Like countless other neighborhoods in countless other American cities, Fishtown metamorphosed over the last decade into an oasis of small-batch creameries, bicycle dealers, craft-beer bars, bakeries, and a Lululemon. Exactly where some people might like to see the end of the world to begin.
When Michael Johnigean and Pavel Rathousky, two of the investors behind Mad Rex, began brainstorming the concept in early 2016, an apocalypse theme was a little less on the nose than it is now. The day Eater accepted my pitch for this story, Trump was threatening “fire and fury like the world has never seen” upon North Korea, which responded later that week with a plan to bomb Guam.
Doomsday anxiety is real, and the endless chyron of bad news feeds it like a conveyor belt of rotten sushi: wildfires in California, car bombings in Mogadishu, three major hurricanes, mass shootings, intercontinental ballistic missiles, a president for whom WWIII is a distraction tactic, and, on top of all that, the plague is back. We diners go to restaurants to escape the world, not to be reminded of it. Set against this backdrop, Mad Rex’s post-apocalyptic schtick seems in questionable taste.
Johnigean sees it another way: “How many times do you look around a restaurant and people are on their phones, lost in the cyber world?” he says. “I wanted to create something where they can be lost in another world of entertainment.” That goal has merit, and according to experts who study the appeal of horror and dystopian media, there may be a secondary psychological benefit to a place like Mad Rex.
“What these [media] express is not the fear of the future; it’s fear of the present,” explains Paul Messaris, a cinema studies professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “They stem from people’s anxieties about all the complexities and frustrations and inanities of everyday life, and what the movies and TV shows offer, in fictional form, is the fantasy that all this gets blown away, and the people who survive get to go back in time to a more primitive existence, in which everything becomes a lot simpler and clearer.”
Mad Rex isn’t alone in bringing controversy to dinner this year. Perhaps as a symptom of our divided and devolved politics, 2017 has seen its share of problematic restaurant ideas, both here and abroad. In Lyon, La Première Plantation opened in June with a design inexplicably celebrating France’s colonial good ol’ days with images of slaves in the bathroom. (It changed names.) In Brooklyn, Summerhill, a sandwich shop and bar, poured gasoline on gentrification tension in Crown Heights by fetishizing its “bullet hole-ridden wall” on Instagram. (It’s still open.) The Dallas outpost of the San Antonio restaurant Hot Joy came under fire in a brutal review by Observer critic Brian Reinhart, who called the place “a clueless white-dude fantasy in which Asian identity and cuisine are reduced to a string of ironic clichés.” (It closed four days later.)
Mad Rex hasn’t done anything nearly as offensive as the restaurants mentioned above, and the owners have edited some of their worst impulses (albeit for business reasons and not empathetic ones). Early reports indicated guests in the virtual-reality lounges would sit in wheelchairs drinking IV bags of booze. “We [decided] to use swivel chairs so you can spin around 360 degrees, and in a wheelchair you couldn’t do that,” Johnigean says. “We decided, let’s not get too carried away.” The IV drips remain (connected to straws, not customer veins).
People will come — are coming — to Mad Rex just to revel in its unusual ambience, and it’s not hard to see how it could be a magnet for bachelor parties, tech-crazed teens, and tourists. If Mad Rex had been around when I was 14, I might have had my birthday party here instead of Q-Zar laser tag.
Unfortunately for the owners, Mad Rex is still a restaurant. And according to the Spirit, Fishtown’s recently folded local paper, it’s connected to people who have proven very bad at running them — namely Brent Brown, the founder of an insolvent chain of entertainment complexes that closed in 2016 after raising $100 million in investment capital. As detailed by BuzzFeed, the story is a web of alleged fraud, bled-out 401Ks, waterfront mansions, Aston Martins, and more LLCs than Wheel of Fortune.
Despite evidence of Brown’s involvement — his wife’s name is on LLC paperwork affiliated with Mad Rex and a credit memo showing Brown’s name on a Mad Rex furniture order are just two examples — Johnigean dismisses the suggestion in the style of a White House surrogate: “It’s all fake news.” 2017, indeed.
What will we eat after the apocalypse? Not bugs and roots, according to Mad Rex’s menu, but aioli-topped burgers and house-baked pretzel bites. Peter Rule, Mad Rex’s chef, has a resume pinballing between workaday bars and high-end restaurants like Brigantessa, whose former executive chef speaks highly of Rule’s talent.
A granite paddle bearing carrot hummus and pita appeared, but you’d be hard-pressed to recognize the bread as such. In the end times, pita will apparently jettison its pocket and evolve sweat glands. The pita glistened, not from a brushing of butter or oil, but from weird watery condensation, the kind that forms on a frosted cake entombed in a forlorn diner’s bakery case. It tasted like raw pizza dough, because that’s what they make it with.
I hadn’t ordered the pita and tried to protest when the food runner delivered it. It’s the restaurant’s free bread service, he assured me, before clearing the appetizers and clomping away on combat boots. His patchwork leather vest was emblazoned with Mad Rex’s motto: “Be a survivor.”
You get the sense Rule is being conscripted into cooking food he’d rather not, but the chef stands behind it. “I had full control of the menu,” he says. “The only stipulation from the owners was to integrate Black Rock Grill cooking and Himalayan salt cooking,” the restaurant’s two main culinary gimmicks.
For entrees, diners choose between composed dishes the kitchen cooks and the “Survivors Menu.” The latter is a pick-your-protein situation where you do your own cooking on a 550-degree slab of black rock set in a custom tray, because, “In the post-apocalyptic era, [survivors] would have no electricity and would build bonfires to cook their meat on rocks,” Johnigean explains. The 8-ounce culotte steak was delicious, but what does it say about a restaurant when the meal’s highlight is something you cooked yourself?
The Himalayan-salt show happens at dessert. Here comes a bowl of ice cream, a bunch of toppings, and a big, damp, empty urn made from rose-colored salt. The instructions: Spoon some ice cream into the salt bowl and mix it around for a second to pick up a trace of the vessel’s mineral salinity. But it doesn’t take more than a second for the ice cream to taste like churned contact lens solution.
“Just like chocolate-covered pretzels, am I right?” An eager manager pointed to the dessert as he walked by the table, then invited me to write up a five-star Google or Yelp review, right there, on my phone, in exchange for a free drink token.
On a positive note, I enjoyed my shrub-like cocktail and my server was friendly and capable. My advice to her is the same as if zombies were chasing her: Run.
Mad Rex may be ready for the next world, but it will have to survive this one first. Other apocalypse-adjacent restaurants, from Spain’s Disaster Café, where waiters in construction helmets served paella amid simulated earthquakes, to Tokyo’s Resident Evil-y Biohazard Cafe, home to a cake shaped like a bloody brain, to the more innocuous Donny Dirk’s Zombie Den in Minneapolis, share something in common: “closed” signs.
Then again, maybe Johnigean and his crew are onto something. Bunker Bar in Murska Sobota, Slovenia, a saloon set in a world where “territories are controlled by clans, the world is wrapped into clouds of ash and toxic gases, rivers are polluted, cities destroyed,” recently celebrated its first anniversary.
On my way out, fake dried blood smeared on the concrete floor by the exit reminded me of Mad Rex’s motto: “Be a survivor.”