Ambience can draw attention to the flavor of a meal or provide a distraction. Either way, a restaurant's atmosphere has the power to influence the taste of the food itself, no matter how good (or bad) the cuisine. In the case of Magic Restroom Cafe in City of Industry, the experience is less about the meal than it is about the unpalatable environment, which features actual toilets, urinals, showerheads and blue mosaic bathroom tiles as part of its dubious decor.
Here, the challenge is to try to enjoy a meal despite the lavatory setting, and when your food is served in a small-scale commode, enjoying it isn't exactly easy.
In Los Angeles, Taiwanese food culture is responsible for the highly successful Din Tai Fung and myriad boba shops. Likewise, Magic Restroom Cafe owner YoYo Li opened this novelty restaurant in October, inspired by a hit enterprise from Taipei, Modern Toilet Restaurant, which has since expanded to other parts of Taiwan and mainland China. Yet while the kitschy eatery is a popular destination overseas, the success of its U.S. counterpart remains to be seen.
The only bathroom-themed restaurant in America is located 20 miles east of downtown L.A., and for anyone living north, south or west of the city center, this means battling frequently congested freeways just to sit on a so-called porcelain throne for some rare photo ops and related, social media - fueled shock value. Given the obstacles, the cooking better be good.
Hard seats and location notwithstanding, the food at the Magic Restroom Cafe is actually pretty tasty, if you can get past the fact that it looks disgusting while you're eating it. The extensive non-alcoholic beverage menu includes smoothies and boba milk teas in a variety of flavors such as rose and cucumber green tea, with prices from $20 to $4.75. (Interestingly, the drinks take up half the menu - maybe because they're not served in tiny toilets?)
The restaurant's bill of fare also includes a list of snacks such as stinky tofu and fish balls. Main courses feature rice and noodles with everything from vegetables and shrimp to sausage, meatballs and either ground or shredded pork.
Finally, dessert options include offbeat selections such as marshmallow brick toast and waffles. We had the Magic Curry Chicken and the Magic Rainbow Ice Cream, a weird mix of ice cream, pudding and Alpha-Bits and Fruit Loops cereals - it's not on the menu but came recommended by our server.
Since "restroom" is essentially the antonym of "restaurant," putting the two together seems like an odd idea, if not generally messed up and wrong. But there's definitely something thought-provoking about Magic Restroom Cafe.
The second-story, strip-mall establishment summons a scene from French filmmaker Luis Buñuel's 1974 movie The Phantom of Liberty, in which dinner-party guests sit on toilets instead of dining-room chairs.
According to film critics (and an old college film professor), the scene raises questions about the idea of consumption and elimination as part of our social framework, specifically with regards to Sigmund Freud, who argued that during the anal stage, a toddler derives as much satisfaction from going to the bathroom as he/she does from eating. Buñuel took it one step further and asked: What really is the difference between a restroom and a dining room if consuming and eliminating both feel good? Um, it's a big one.
Obviously, there's a huge difference between delicious, nourishing, expertly cooked meals and the stuff people flush away on purpose. Apart from a few fetishists, eating poo is a big fat no-no from a biological standpoint alone. It's difficult to imagine why people would willingly eat at a place that celebrates the act of expelling waste matter from the body, unless it's to somehow straddle the taboo boundary between an acceptable group experience and one that's traditionally private (with good reason).
It's safe to say Magic Restroom Cafe definitely isn't for everyone. Even though the taste of the food is actually good, it is possible that you won't notice that because you'll be too busy looking around (and, most likely, being grossed out).
So while the focus probably won't be on the ingredients as much as the restaurant's bathroom backdrop, it's worth a visit because it definitely provides the context for a sufficiently extreme dining experience.
And in the end, even if the food isn't to your liking, at least you can still Instagram your eating adventure.
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Magic Restroom Cafe: 18558 Gale Ave., Ste. 222, City of Industry; (626) 664-3766.