With a focus on first-class dining and storytelling Park Row, the world’s first fully immersive DC-inspired restaurant experience, opened on August 10.
Featuring five premium restaurant and bar spaces, Park Row combines multi-sensory storytelling with world-class food and drink that draws from some of Gotham City’s most famous (and notorious) residents; a gastronomic theme park for comic book fans and foodies.
Park Row is situated within a Grade II listed Art Deco venue in the heart of London’s theatre-land. Guests will step off the streets of Soho and descend into the DC universe via a secret door in Wayne Manor.
While the main spaces within the venue, Pennyworth’s, the Iceberg Lounge, Rogue’s Gallery, and Old Gotham City, are inspired by DC, with a subtle nod to the characters and hidden easter eggs for clued-up fans, the halo concept, The Monarch Theatre, is a fully immersive restaurant experience, with state-of-the-art floor to ceiling projection mapping and an incredible tasting menu.
James Bulmer is the founder and CEO of Wonderland Restaurants, as well as a former Disney executive and former CEO of Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck Group. He spoke to blooloop about the ground-breaking experience after two weeks of soft launch, just before the concept opened to the public.
Food storytelling at Park Row
“This started a couple of years ago,” he says. “We are from a food background. We enjoy food storytelling. Everything we do is about imagination and creating stories. What we were looking for was a partner who had the biggest and the best stories that we could tell through food and drink.”
“Warner Bros have the best stories. So, we were very fortunate to be able to convince them that this was an opportunity to team up together, create a new partnership, and, effectively, disrupt food entertainment on the high street by creating what we’ve termed ‘gastronomic amusement parks’. We use food, drink, tastes and flavour to create new customer experiences. We tell the stories in a subtle way that hasn’t been done before.”
Suspension of disbelief
Part of that subtlety is evident in the no-costume policy. This plays a role in maintaining the suspension of disbelief and keeps the story intact.
“This was very much the driving ambition from day one,” Bulmer says:
“Everyone gets very bored when I tell this story, but it is true. I sat in a bar in Covent Garden and ordered a vodka martini – shaken, not stirred. And for that brief second, the room was my world, and I was James Bond.”
“Now, had I seen James Bond walk past me, I would have realized I’m about five inches too small and my midriff is a bit too soft to be an MI6 agent.
“It was very much about creating an environment where we allow the diner to feel that when they cross that threshold into that world, they are the lead in their story.”
Cosplay would prevent this. However:
“We are fully behind cosplay in some instances. And, later down the line, when we have established ourselves, we’d love to give back to the cosplay community, because they’re amazing. We’d love to bring them in and have a special evening for them. But the whole strategy and vision of this has to be that we want everyone to feel like this is their home, their place. They get to be Bruce Wayne, Selina Kyle, whoever they want to be when they come to Park Row.”
A personal experience
Gaming has evolved the trend for customers wanting to be protagonists. This model enables that trend.
“One thing that we’ve always understood is that with great storytelling, it’s often the imagination that finishes that execution,” Bulmer says. “If you show everything and you’re too on the nose, you don’t allow the individual’s imagination to fill in those gaps. A great story arcs. If you let them fill in the gaps, then it is so much more personal, so much more powerful, for the consumer.”
“We’re going to find out whether we’ve got it right. This is a multifaceted business. The basics of what we are doing right now is we’ve opened three F&B operations under one roof. There are five restaurant and bar spaces, but three very distinct teams operating.
“On the restaurant side, you have the main restaurant, which is the Iceberg Lounge; as well as Rogue’s Gallery and Pennyworth, which are run by one team. We have a completely separate team that runs the Monarch. It’s like opening many restaurants at the same time, under one roof. This takes a lot of staff and a lot of manpower to give that consumer experience that we want to offer.”
Stunning interiors at Park Row
Park Row’s interiors have been designed by Ab Rogers Design (ARD). The restaurant is a partnership between Warner Bros. Consumer Products, DC and Wonderland Restaurants.
“If you are taking someone back to the Iceberg Lounge, which mixes beautiful art deco shadows of Gotham city timelessly, a lot of that experience comes from incredible service,” he says:
“It’s actually the human elements that elevate that experience for the customers. We’re super excited about how the first two weeks have gone. We’ve had a lot of feedback. We are the biggest critics of ourselves, and we have a lot to do. But we know we’re building from a strong platform, which is the food and beverage side. The food has been phenomenally received. But we want to up it. We want to go further.”
One particularly eye-catching dish is what appears to be a toxic red and white Fly Agaric mushroom.
“That was one of the first dishes we created,” says Bulmer. “In the Monarch, we are conducting a theatrical dining experience. We’ve always wanted to control the full sensorial environment. We built a box within a Grade 2 listed room, called the Monarch Theatre.”
“You’re greeted by your host for the evening and are presented with your Gotham dollar. There is a small surprise when you meet our version of the Joker. He decides whether you have a light or a dark soul. You engage in the Amusement Mile nitrogen popcorn before you enter into a two-and-a-half-hour dining experience, where we take you through 11 chapters, 12 courses of food and drink that captures the emotions.”
“We spent some time working with psychologists to explore fear. How do we create that emotion, without – and this is the key – scaring people? How do you put that on a plate?”
Fear, darkness and ‘toxic’ mushrooms
He outlines the experience that characterises the ‘chapter’ on fear:
“You are in a dark forest. You can hear the noises of the animals in the forest, slightly haunting. A toxic gas rolls in, engulfs the room, and the room descends into complete darkness.”
The darkness, by removing guests’ primary sense, is a technique to convey a facet of fear to which everyone relates.
“Sending people into a dark room has an immediate effect. A voiceover – we are not clear about who he is – explains that he uses fear to torture his captives. He goes on to explain that a ‘fear toxin’ is being inhaled by the guests in the smoke that pumps out from the central table as the room descends into darkness. A central ingredient to this fear toxin is the Amanita muscaria mushroom. When the lights come up, you are presented with the poisonous mushroom.”
In fact, the beautiful, poisonous-looking mushroom is an exquisite mushroom parfait. Before they can discover this, however, guests have to take a leap of faith:
“You say, ‘Well, wait a minute. I’ve just been told in the darkness that this mushroom is deadly poisonous.’
“It’s delicious, and it’s great fun. We’re trying to show that great storytelling, great food, doesn’t have to be too serious.”
Creating memorable moments
There have been, Bulmer points out, some wonderful food storytellers over the years:
“A gentleman called Ferran Adrià was a pioneer at a restaurant called elBulli [in Roses on the Costa Brava]. Heston Blumenthal, in this country, really inspired us. We want to take it much further.”
“What we’ve done is we’ve looked at some of the creative principles and processes, and have partnered with an incredible company in Warner Bros. who have the best stories, and we’ve just blown it up. We hope what we’re doing is showing that this can create incredible memories, be fun in execution, and be very serious on the plate.”
The wide appeal of Park Row
Explaining the multifaceted appeal to a broad demographic, he says:
“Take the Simpsons. When the Simpsons tell a joke, and a child and a dad are watching it, they laugh at the same joke. But they laugh for very different reasons. It’s a wonderful duality.
“What we are attempting to do here is to send you into Gotham City, and with the design, we’re trying to tell a Simpsons joke. I’ve created this in the hope that the superfans will peel back those layers of design and see the Easter eggs everywhere, and will feel special because they’re the ones who get it. They understand the lore, the content, the 80 years of history that we’re delving into; they feel special when they leave.”
“We want that to be crucial. This is about having these guys feel like they have a home that understands, and they can delve into.
“Equally, we want to get foodies and foodie adventurers and thrill-seekers into this business. So, if there were three or four people from finance in Mayfair, who weren’t DC fans, who didn’t understand Superman, Batman, Wonderwoman etc., they will still come here and feel comfortable.
“The central Iceberg Lounge with this incredible statue of the Penguin is just stunning. The fact that the cocktail happens to be Three Bridges, which tells the story of the three bridges leading to Gotham City, doesn’t matter. It’s visually beautiful, it tastes stunning, and it feels like a premium, sophisticated dining experience.”
A unique dining experience
Park Row is a 300-cover experience across the different spaces. This means that it is essential to appeal to a broad customer base.
“The process we took when we created the concept was to aim to deliver something unique to everyone. We have the most wonderful live music programme. It’s been tested this week, and it will evolve into next week. It’s about creating that slight undertone of 1920s hedonism, but with a hint of danger, because you’re in the Iceberg Lounge.
“There’s no specific time; we’re not timestamping it, but the natural fabric of the building gives you those hints. The people in there, and the live music, give this wonderful sense of bringing it to life.”
“Last Saturday was the first big Saturday we did. We capped it at 150 people, and it was crazy. The atmosphere was amazing: the beautiful saxophonist, the beautiful singers, the pianist; our cantilever whisky pool, which we’ve created in Pennyworth was going round, full of Inishtree whisky, which we have created for Bruce Wayne. Inishtree is where Castle Wayne was. A billionaire playboy with his family roots in Scotland would have had this kind of Scottish whisky.”
The Park Row Restaurant concept allows people to inhabit a world they will be reluctant to leave:
“That’s what we hope,” says Bulmer. “Although, they’ll have to leave eventually because we need to clean it now and again!”
Park Row and COVID-19
Commenting on the disruption of the COVID pandemic, he says:
“It was only a pain in the same way it was a pain for pretty much everyone. I had my own business previously, and I’ve had downs. When things go wrong, you feel very alone. As tough as the pandemic was, the one thing we all had was that it was touching everyone. It was a unique experience in that people understood, because everyone was experiencing it.
“It was tough from our perspective because we wanted to open sooner. But I feel we’re incredibly fortunate, in that certain things have accelerated.”
He feels the concept is now far more relevant than it was pre- pandemic:
“Customers want more from going out. In a wonderful way, we in the industry have been pushed to think harder, innovate, create better experiences. People are not happy anymore with sub-standard food and drinks. This crosses every single sector: people want more.”
Park Row’s innovative use of technology
The apogee of the Park Row phenomenon is the Monarch Theatre, with its £195-per head, 11-course or ‘chapter’ tasting menu. This is an immersive, multi-sensory experience enhanced with state-of-the-art floor to ceiling projection mapping and staging designed to engage emotions and senses.
A 360-degree projected surrounding is provided by 6 x Epson EB-L1075U laser projectors, each with an ELPLX01 ultra-short-throw ‘periscope’ lens. The system is installed and delivered by Sysco Productions, AV solutions experts and story engineers.
“To describe it physically,” Bulmer says: “You are sitting in a box with grey walls, with a beautiful table down the middle and ten seats on either side. It’s like going to the theatre. You bought your ticket in advance and are committed to spending three hours of your life with us.
“The main protagonist, very much at the centre of the Monarch, is the food and the drink. Everything else from the projection mapping to the table – which releases smoke, has sub-woofers built-in, heats up, levitates and has magnets – is there to support the food and drink.”
Creating talking points
The Monarch dishes are executed by Executive Chef Karl O’Dell, formerly of Michelin-starred Texture.
“The Joker dish is one of my favourites,” Bulmer adds. “The subtle story is as you’re moving through Act One, you go through the emotions that are the darker side of Gotham. We start with ego. We move into greed, obsessional love, and fear, before finishing with ultimate chaos.
“In our story, the Joker takes you into his mind. You’re in a white padded cell. We play on one of the stories where the Joker poisoned the waters of Gotham Harbour and created the Joker fish. So, the dish is this wonderful, simple white plate with the octopus as a smile; beautifully cooked black cod. The room starts to rotate; the black light comes on. Huge amounts of Easter eggs come alive on the walls.
“You will have received a Joker playing card earlier in the experience, which has a personalised UV message.
“It’s all about making the guest feel special. There are constant little keepsakes that pop up to punctuate the experience and create talking points. It’s the wedding table theory. You might have to bring together 20 people. In a short space of time, you want them to leave swapping numbers, feeling it was amazing, wanting to do it again. What is wonderful about food and drink is that it brings people together.”
The Wonderland Group
Explaining the background to the Wonderland Group, Bulmer says:
“I was very fortunate. I’ve always been in food and drink. My father was the head of Michelin and worked at the company for 33 years. Chefs were the only people who would call me back when I started my first business because they wanted to know if they could get a star. I got to meet some of the best chefs in the country at a very early age. So, I fell in love with the industry, and with food and drink: who doesn’t love food and drink?”
“The exciting thing was when I realised that food and drink is pretty much the heart of everything. We are seeing that now; there are fashion brands, entertainment brands. Everybody is moving in on this sector, understanding that food and drink connects everyone.
“It’s an incredible touchpoint throughout the day. It goes back to when we were hunter-gatherers sitting around a fire. We would cook and tell stories. That’s very much how Wonderland started.”
Tapping into the world of theatre
At the core of Wonderland is the Academy of Curiosity and Wonderment:
“We wanted to create a think-tank of people who weren’t from the food and drink industry, who would come at problems in a different way and would come up with crazy ideas. So we have, for example, a gentleman called Chris Cox.”
As a creative for Wonderland and Wonderland at Home, Cox is concerned with adding magic, theatrical narrative and immersive moments:
“He is an illusionist on the show The Illusionists, currently in a show called Wonderville at the Palace Theatre. Chris used to have a show on BBC 3 called Killer Magic. He is the mind-reader who can’t read minds. It’s about tapping into the world of theatre.
“If we’re going to do amazing food and drink, from physical experiences through to consumer products, with incredible stories running through the middle of it, which is the ambition of the company, we need chemical engineers, physicists, magicians. We need to tap into all those skills.
“We have some really exciting projects. We’re working with UCL at the moment on a big project that we will, hopefully, be able to announce in the next couple of months where we’re trying to take the molecular side of cooking to another level, and also doing scientific studies.
“The purpose of the Academy of Curiosity and Wonder was to bring together a bunch of incredible minds from different industries, who can make things happen.”
A cocktail like no other at Park Row
“I’m a massive fan of Roald Dahl. Originally, I wanted lickable wallpaper in Park Row. Then COVID hit, and it was clearly one of those ideas that was never going to make the cut.”
What the team came up with, in the end, arguably surpassed lickable wallpaper by a long way:
“We looked at some theatre productions. There are incredible ones like Harry Potter, where they are using technology and various techniques to elevate their production value.
“In Rogue’s Gallery, the restaurant in Park Row which is owned by Selina Kyle, or Catwoman, we had a master forger create six of the most expensive paintings that were stolen and never found.”
“Then we dipped them in paint, ripped them, and tried to give them that character emotion. One of the paintings in the bar is the Blue Boy from the original Batman movie. This can be lifted off the wall. When you order a Blue Boy cocktail, the waiter goes over to it, lifts the picture frame off the wall, takes it over to your table, and pours your Blue Boy cocktail. A blue liquid, the cocktail, comes out – and the blue drains from the Blue Boy’s outfit.
“We’re excited to do things like that, where it’s a case of just having a bit more fun.
“We have a nitrogen trolley, and an edible helium balloon trolley as well. If at the end of the evening, you want to eat an edible helium balloon, it’s great fun.”
Long term plans
For the moment, all focus is on the launch. In the longer term, Bulmer says:
“The ambition of Wonderland is to disrupt the food entertainment on the high street around the world. So, we’re very fortunate in the relationship we have with Warner Bros. It’s a global relationship, so we can go and do this again in a different form, tell different stories.
“For this one, we have been centred on Gotham city. We have the whole DC world. Warner Bros have a catalogue of further incredible brands and IP that, as storytellers, we would love to explore. We are the beginning of our journey.”
“We’re also kept very busy in the fact that we have a separate business with Warner Bros which came out of lockdown, where we deliver boxed sensorial dining experiences to the door.”
In partnership with Warner Bros Consumer Products, Wonderland Restaurants launched the premium boxed experience, Wonderland at Home. The first box celebrates Zack Snyder’s Justice League. In an experience inspired by the DC Justice League characters and stories, customers can enjoy Big Belly Burger, Jitters Coffee, Koul Beer, and a Smallville dessert.
The boxes cost £100 (in the UK), serve two people, and contain sensorial ‘extras’ to enhance the experience.
Food is at the centre of the Park Row experience
“We have a very exciting end-of-year planned that we intend to carry on with in the delivery world,” he says:
“We have, of course, already had other entertainment companies approach us. The reality is, though, that we are very early in our journey, and we are in a very fortunate position with Warner Bros. We are never going to move the revenue needle for Warner Bros. If this is what we hope it is, and we can deliver it for them consistently, what we have the ambition to do is move the brand needle. If we can do that, a long partnership lies ahead globally with their other stories.”
“I’m hugely into theme parks. I think there is so much opportunity to use food and drink, rather than as an ancillary upsell, as something more central, with storytelling running through it, and to understand that whole quality piece.
“That’s what Wonderland was set up to do. We are focused on Park Row for the next three months, because we know if we get this right, the runway is quite exciting.”
Food is at the heart of what the Wonderland group does. Yet what they do is also so much more than food. It is as if they offer the most exquisite Turkish Delight, while allowing customers to believe they are eating it in Narnia.