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T-bone or T-Rex? Both are on the menu here

There’s something new in the World of Theme Restaurants. And if the opening of this theme’s first facility, in Kansas City, Kan., is any indication, it has quite a future.

Billed as T-Rex: a Prehistoric Family Adventure, this destination restaurant has drawn nothing but accolades from its clientele — kids and adults alike — for its new approach to dining along with striking exhibits that have an educational value.

Theme restaurants have had a huge impact on the restaurant business since they made their first appearance 20 or more years ago. And by the early 1990s, these concept eateries sprang up all over the globe. They sported such themes as music, movies, motorcycles, sports and even videogames.

Basically the themes of these restaurants take priority over everything else — influencing the architecture, food, music and the overall ‘feel’ of the property. While there have been some winners in the business — the likes of the Hard Rock Cafes, the Rainforest Cafes and a few others — the woods are full of ‘losers’ — those which closed or declared bankruptcy after flashy openings.

Such names as Cafe Odyssey, Crash Cafe, Dive!, Wilderness Cafe, Jekyll & Hyde Club and Planet Hollywood are harder to find today than they were just a few years ago. In many cases, these properties depended more on their themes rather than good food or service.

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The newest of the new, the T-Rex property, was developed by Golden Valley, Minn., entrepreneur Steve Schussler, who spent 10 years developing his "edutainment" concept. Schussler, whose financial fortunes have ebbed and flowed through the years, had previously conceived the highly successful Rainforest Cafe theme, now a chain operation with its most profitable properties at the Mall of America — where the first one open opened — and at Downtown Disney at Disney World in Orlando, where there are two.

At T-Rex, a 15,000-square-foot property costing $15 million — the most expensive theme restaurant ever in the Kansas City area — customers are taken back to a time before humans walked the earth.

The restaurant is billed as A Place to Eat, Shop, Explore and Discover and features dining and retail in an interactive prehistoric environment. Life-size animated, three-dimensional dinosaurs are situated amid cascading waterfalls, ice caves and bubbling geysers, and sounds of roaring dinosaurs capture your imagination. The settings are very theatrical.

There’s more to the property as well, we found out during a recent visit. In addition to an eclectic food menu — which is very tasty and not all that pricey — and retail area with more than 5,000 items, children are encouraged to participate in dinosaur digs to uncover actual dinosaur fossils and artifacts up to 300 million years old.

Paleontology students are on hand to educate the children about the artifacts they find, and these digs draw hefty lines of kids. As far as the restaurant’s food is concerned, the menu includes such items as Mastodon Margaritas, Mammoth Mushroom Raviolis and Macadamia Nut Crusted Snapper.

In Kansas City, the restaurant is located in the Legends at Village West, a massive 750,000-square-foot outdoor shopping and entertainment lifestyle center that’s located along West I-435. The center, developed just a few years ago, draws some 10 million visitors a year.

Landy’s Restaurants, a big name in the field, recently acquired 80 percent of the T-Rex restaurant concept from Schussler and now has plans to open several other properties. The next opening will be in Orlando at Disney World — theme restaurants do best in tourist areas — and one after that will be the Sparks Marina development in Sparks, Nev., a high-traffic destination in the Reno/Lake Tahoe region.

Schussler told the Star Tribune recently he dreams of multi-million dollar restaurants, retail outlets, theme parks and museums. He does most of the concept work in a nondescript Golden Valley building, named "Schussler Creative, Inc."

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His "wild idea" that included hosts of jungle birds and waterfalls paid off in 1994 when he opened the Rainforest Cafe in the Mall of America. Later he sold the concept, again to Landy’s Restaurants.

A few years before, he wowed downtown Minneapolis with his Jukebox Saturday Night, a nightclub that had King Kong climbing up the side, a 1957 Chevy roaring out the front of the building and lines of people waiting to get in, noted a Star Tribune article.

Bob Retzlaff is travel editor of the Post-Bulletin. He can be reached by phone at (507) 285-7704 or by e-mail at retz@postbulletin.com.

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