The ‘90s were a time when themed restaurants reined in Chicago and Rainforest Cafe was one of the most popular. But now it seems it’s an end of an era as the chain’s management announced that the longtime Woodfield Mall location will close on January 1 in suburban Schaumburg.
The River North location in downtown Chicago could also close in 2020 or in early- to mid-2021, the Tribune reports. Landry’s, the cafe’s owners, wouldn’t confirm those plans.
The suburban restaurant opened in 1995 and drew long lines of parents and their young children braving hours-long waits. Two years later, the River North location opened at 605 N. Clark Street, near the Rock ‘N’ Roll McDonald’s that’s been razed and replaced.
Rainforest’s colorful exterior, headlined by a giant frog named Cha! Cha! who sits above the entrance, is reminiscent of another relic of the ‘90s, FernGully: The Last Rain Forest. The playfulness captured the imagination of children who begged their parents to devote their evenings to waiting in line for a table. Set pieces inside the restaurants include waterfalls, animatronic and live animals, plus aquariums. Rarely did a customer mention the food.
The first Rainforest Cafe opened in 1992 at the Mall of America in Minnesota. Woodfield was the chain’s second location. Disney also took notice of the brand’s strength and a location opened in Downtown Disney in Orlando, Florida.
Landry’s, the company that owns steakhouses and other chains including Morton’s, Joe’s Crab House, Mastro’s, and Del Frisco’s — which exited Chicago’s Gold Coast at the end of 2018 — purchased Rainforest Cafe in 2000. Landry’s made changes: the cafe no longer employs handlers who paraded around the restaurant with parrots, for example.
A Rainforest Cafe spokesperson sent in this statement, attributed to Don Hart, Landry’s vice president of operations, special restaurants division, about the suburban closure. It didn’t mention anything about the Chicago restaurant closing.
“Due to a natural lease expiration, Rainforest Cafe located in [Schaumburg] at Woodfield Mall will cease operations on Wednesday, January 1, 2020. We value our employees, their dedication to our company and are working to relocate them to our sister properties throughout the Chicago area including Rainforest Cafe Downtown and Gurnee Mills, Morton’s The Steakhouse, McCormick and Schmick’s, Bill’s Bar and Burger, and Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. We are grateful for the support of our community and encourage our guests to visit us at our two other Chicago-area locations.”
However, the Tribune reported that Rainforest’s landlord in Chicago is already making plans for when the River North lease expires in around two years. Sean Conlon compared the cafe to Sony’s Walkman (the portable cassette mini-player) — something once cutting edge that’s now past its prime. He may sell the property or bring in a new developer.
The Trib’s report seemingly agrees with an anonymous Reddit post that made its rounds on Thursday, before the Tribune or Daily Herald reported about the mall closure. The post, since deleted, stated the Woodfield location would close on January 1 and that the Chicago location would close within 20 months or when its lease ends. The poster claimed the information was from an investor call and that neither location was making money anymore. A third area spot inside the Gurnee Mills shopping center north of Chicago, near the Great America theme park, remains open. In 2017, a location at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf suddenly closed after a 15-year run.
River North has seen themed restaurants like Planet Hollywood, ESPN Zone, and even Ed Debevic’s close, although Ed’s plans to reopen in a new location in 2020. Rainforest Cafe may be next. Someone may also need to check on Hard Rock Cafe, a pillar of the neighborhood since 1986.