Themed restaurants (at least in the States) are generally tired affairs: big-money chains with average-at-best food that are aimed towards tourists from other countries or small towns. But what may have very well been the world’s first themed restaurant was themed around Hell.
Le Café de L'Enfer (or Cafe Hell) was a restaurant and cabaret located in the Montmarte “red light” district of Paris. It operated from the late 1800s through the mid-1900s, not far from the famous Grand Guignol theater (which offered shows consisting of murder, mayhem, and spectacular special effects.) To enter the cafe, you would have to walk through the gaping maw of an angry hellspawn, securing your entrance to Hell. Once inside, a doorman in a devil suit would greet diners with “Enter and be damned!” The waiters would be dressed as demons as well. William Chambers Morrow wrote a first hand account in his 1899 book, Bohemian Paris of To-day: “One of the imps came to take our order; it was for three coffees, black, with cognac; and this is how he shrieked the order: ‘Three seething bumpers of molten sins, with a dash of brimstone intensifier!’ Then, when he had brought it, ‘This will season your intestines, and render them invulnerable, for a time at least, to the tortures of the melted iron that will be soon poured down your throats.’” Satan strolled among patrons, taunting them. The cavernous interior was decorated with hideous, writhing souls and the demons that were torturing them, and the lighting mimicked flames. Sounds like fun. For those who love irony, for a time, a similar themed restaurant called Cabaret du Ciel (or Heaven) opened up next door.
Just down the street from L’Enfer was another “death cafe,” Cabaret du Neant (or the Cabaret of Nothingness), perfect for an after-dinner drink and a show. While L’Enfer was bustling with constant, chaotic movement, Neant was far more somber and quiet. The lighting effects here made patrons look green and sickly. The maitre d’ and servers were all dressed as undertakers and pall bearers; the tables in the bar were overturned coffins. The walls were decorated with bones, battle scenes, and guillotines in action. Chandeliers made of human bones hung from the ceiling. Keeping with the bleak atmosphere and sense of malaise, servers would put in drink orders like “One microbe of Asiatic cholera from the last corpse, one leg of a lively cancer, and one sample of our consumption germ!” When the drinks were consumed, patrons were led to another room where they would enjoy an illusion show that included paintings that shifted from humans to skeletons, dancing skeletons, and peepholes that reveal “gruesome tableaus.” It is thought that these illusions were the direct inspiration for a number of the effects in Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion (most notably, the shifting paintings in the hallway; the ones in the attic; and possibly even the hitchhiking ghosts.)
The operating dates of both these venues are a little hazy. The both seemed to open in the latter half of the 19th century, and closed around WWII. L’Enfer’s facade, however, still stood into the late 1950s.