I think I'm gonna hurl," the teen announced to anyone within earshot. His girlfriend, the one with the blank stare and bare midriff who'd been holding his hand so tightly it looked like she might be hurled into space if she let go, didn't even blink. "Ohhhh," he moaned, holding his stomach. "Four times in one night is way too much." The women in front of him in line was not impressed. "That's nothing," she said. "Me and my eight-year-old have been on this thing six times today. This is our seventh." The woman running the ride also put the teen in his place. "Hey, if you really like it, you should get a job here," she told him. "I've been on it more than a hundred times since we opened."
It was a tough crowd at the Max Flight virtual-reality roller coaster at Holoworld Cafe.
But no tougher than the lot of the eatertainment outlets already clamoring for your dining dollars. Last week the Rainforest Cafe finally dried up and blew out of the Cherry Creek Shopping Center; Cafe Odyssey is dying a slow death at Denver Pavilions. And then there's Dave & Buster's, which is bigger than Holoworld and also filled with games. Still, none of that discouraged a California company from choosing Park Meadows to be home to the very first Holoworld. (A second is scheduled to open in New York this spring, a third in Houston this fall -- after that, the world!)
And so Denver diners are the first to see the 45-foot volcano that serves as Holoworld's entrance and shoots out steam that can be seen from blocks away. Inside, Holoworld is a universe of state-of-the-art video games, a couple of virtual-reality options, the ever-popular Lazer Tag, enough televisions to appease sports fans and -- oh, yes -- tables where diners can sit, order casual fare and wonder how they ever wound up at a video arcade for dinner.
At the front of the dining area is a large-screen TV that makes it possible for families to eat and still avoid any human contact, and the mesmerizing lava lamps in the booths offer yet another distraction. But the tables are set far enough away from the rest of the excitement that kiddies can stay focused long enough to consume a few calories before getting lost in the land of cyber-babes who are strikingly emaciated in the waist area but still manage to carry big guns and racks that make Dolly Parton look like Calista Flockhart. History will later tell us that the early '00s were a low point in terms of family interaction: The current statistic being bandied about is that only 12 percent of families sit down to a meal together on a daily basis.
I have seen the future, and it is Holo, all right.
The menu echoes the retro-futuristic theme with such headers as "The Plutonian Pizza & Pasta Works" and "Earthling Platters," along with an extensive roster of standard kid favorites. With the exception of the exceptionally thick grilled cheese sandwich on Texas-style bread, which goes for $3.99, all of the under-twelve meals cost $4.99 -- but they're still bargains, because the portions are large enough for two smaller kids to share. The Junior Explorer pepperoni pizza, for example, was more than the eight inches described on the menu, and loaded with cheese and an unusually mild pepperoni. The spaghetti had been tossed with a yummy meat-packed sauce and adorned with two meatballs, and was accompanied by cheese-coated toast. The Molten Macaroni and Cheese put Kraft to shame; the thick, thick cheese sauce had my kids scraping the bottom of the bowl with their fingers. Even the corn dog was commendable: a big, fat beef dog coated in a typically sweet cornmeal batter that had been fried to a greasy crisp, accompanied by a helping of fries big enough to feed four teenagers.
From the quality of the kids' meals, it's obvious that Holoworld emphasizes family fun. "We do cater to kids," says general manager Jeri Crater. "We're trying to be a family place, and that makes us different from the other restaurants that offer similar entertainment."
But Holoworld doesn't forget that families are headed by grownups, adult eaters who might appreciate dishes such as sesame-seared ahi tuna. The fish was pretty good -- nicely charred on the outside and nearly rare within, served with dry basmati rice and a simple vegetable stir-fry -- but in this setting, we felt more at home digging into the Martian meatloaf. The loaf was moist and oniony, smothered in a quintessential diner-style gravy and served with not one, but two starches: crunchy-crusted onion rings and a huge mound of garlic-flavored mashed potatoes. The tortilla soup, a tomato-based concoction teeming with crispy tortilla strips that went crunch against a sizable mass of feta and half an avocado, was sophisticated enough to appeal to an adult palate, as was an order of soft-as-buttah popcorn shrimp and calamari, barely coated with breadcrumbs and fried until golden.
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The problem was making sure those delicious items disappeared into our stomachs, and not into the eager hands of the servers. The Holoworld staffers are young, friendly and more attuned to video games than is probably healthy. But because the servers are young, and also because the restaurant is new, there are a few stupid service glitches -- most notably the clearing of dishes before you're done. (You'll never know the level of attachment a four-year-old can have for a half-eaten corn dog until it disappears.) Still, the disappearing dishes were a symptom of a bigger problem: Because the wait can be long for more popular games, particularly the virtual-reality ones, you'll need to use your table as a base camp. That way, you can annihilate a few cyborg outliers and take the Ferrari for a spin between courses instead of watching everyone else have all the fun. Or sit back and sip some coffee while the more stubborn members of your party ride the roller coaster again and again. Although initially Holoworld had assumed that people would eat and then play, or play and then eat, it's since recognized that eating and entertainment are inextricably linked at this eatertainment outlet. And so, Crater says, the restaurant has just implemented a system that involves putting a placard on a table to indicate whether you are through eating -- or just off on another round of fun.
That fun doesn't always come easy. Of the 122 machines at Holoworld, on a recent visit I found that a dozen of the ones designed for younger children weren't working; neither was the skydiving simulator, one of two virtual-reality experiences. Still, my daughters found several video games that spit out enough tickets for the good-quality prizes they coveted. And I became addicted to the mountain-biking video game, thrilling but less physically threatening than actually hurtling down a boulder-covered hill with my face hanging over the handlebars. The virtual-reality roller coaster was less impressive to a serious danger junkie -- just a lot of being turned upside down and tossed side to side while a series of cosmic coaster rails were sort of flung at us. I couldn't imagine riding the thing again, much less half a dozen times (at $5 a shot, I might add).
The teenage dude made it through five -- barely. Finally he pried himself loose from his girlfriend and raced toward the bathroom. "Are you okay?" she called, momentarily back in reality. "No," he shot back. "I'm really gonna hurl."
If I have to stomach many more eatertainment concepts, I may do the same.