For a good while now, the Hard Rock Cafe has been a dinosaur that isn't aware that it's already extinct. This summer, the international eatery chain will open a new location at the Mall of America, but the news was rightfully overshadowed by the 400 Bar moving there with the promise of actual rock on the menu.
After the Hard Rock Cafe closed in the failing Block E development in 2011, it seemed to already be a bad fit in this area. Maybe it was just the location downtown, where it stuck out like a sore thumb with its gaudy neon guitar that jutted out across the street from First Avenue. The juxtaposition as you approached the club was almost comical: Overblown, oversized glossy neon against the matte black monolith. Sure, it will look less out of place in the mall, but what's the point of this place?
See Also: 400 Bar to open venue in Mall of America
I entered the downtown establishment only once, years ago, prior to Interpol's first pass through town in support of Turn On the Bright Lights. When I walked in to track friends down who were finishing up their meal, Interpol themselves were seated near the front door. They were chowing down on burgers and salads, and looked utterly ridiculous inside a place that ties itself into rock 'n' roll as much as possible. And therein lies the problem: How is it that seeing a rock band eating inside a Hard Rock Cafe looks silly?
Much of the problem lies in the fact that, aside from it just being outright odd to down some buffalo wings next to a glass case containing Jimmy Page's guitar, those wings and anything else you might want to eat just aren't very good. It's passable at best. I never actually ate at the one here, but my dining experiences in Toronto and Acapulco were both pretty bad. I ate at the one in Toronto on a family trip 20-plus years ago and I still remember it being one of the worst burgers I've ever consumed.
The other problem is that the Hard Rock Cafe is woefully outdated. In the '80s and early '90s it was cool to collect swag from the different HRCs in each city you (or a relative) visited. Those T-shirts were everywhere. But like all fads, the luster eventually wore off and became passé -- a part of many peoples' youth that there is literally no reason to revisit, reignite or otherwise keep alive. The brand could use a facelift somehow, and entrenching at the Mall of America is going to do absolutely zero in terms of anyone seeing them differently.
Rock 'n' roll is supposed to at least seem dangerous, whether it actually is or not. It has always strived to seem edgy and vaguely frightening but the Hard Rock Cafe, whether they intended to or not, sterilized that notion a bit. As much as you might want to listen to something edgy and menacing on your way to dinner, you don't ever want your dinner to seem that way once you arrive. The whole concept should have been dead in the water before it ever morphed into an actual brick-and-mortar building.[page]
Before the Hard Rock Cafe and all of the soon to be Mayo-ized Block E, it was filled with dirty clubs like the 24 and the Longhorn. Those places birthed bands like the Replacements and Hüsker Dü. When I first started coming downtown to go to shows as a teenager, the site was a sketchy-as-hell parking lot where you might get offered drugs, might get mugged or both. My car got broken into there once when I was in high school -- though the only thing they got was a limited edition Fossil watch I had gotten as a Christmas gift just a few days before. Luckily, I had also gotten Christmas money and was able to replace it without my parents finding out. (Until now, I suppose.) The point here being all of Block E was an experiment gone wrong and it's all too clear now -- despite the generally terrible (though sometimes free) parking lot it replaced.
The Hard Rock Cafe wasn't the worst thing in Block E. (That would be GameWorks.) But if it was an attempt to seem trendy and forward-thinking, that venture was about the last thing it needed. Maybe the new digs in the Mall of America will bring it new life, but the 400 Bar with an museum of local memorabilia, the Depot Tavern and its many photos of shows past, the Turf Club's walls of framed concert posters, and more places that spark memories of the actual music of the Twin Cities. Only time will tell. I know this: Electric Ladyland might have been revolutionary, but cramming a chicken sandwich into your maw next to one of Hendrix's Stratocasters is anything but.