CITY OF INDUSTRY -- Usually, I wait until after dinner to bow to the porcelain bowl … and then, only if salmonella or E. coli accidentally has kicked in.
But here I sit on one in a series of gleaming white thrones at a restaurant that actually wants customers to consciously think about the, uh, end result of their meals even as they are eating it. And by “the end,” I don’t mean calculating the tip and signing the check.
You’re probably thinking, Must this guy be so gauche as to devolve into potty humor as if he were some arrested development 8-year-old?
Yes. Yes, I must.
And so did the scores of other diners who waited to sit astride rows of large commodes and eat their Taiwanese comfort-food entrees out of smaller toilet bowls at a recently opened restaurant with the literal-minded name of the Magic Restroom Cafe in this working-class suburb east of Los Angeles.
Take Laura Montoya, digging into two heaping scoops of chocolate ice cream in a toilet bowl a few stalls, er, tables to my right. Since seeing a local TV news report on this blatantly gimmicky themed joint, Montoya had wanted to pay a visit from Long Beach, about 30 miles southwest. She dragged along her friend Mitchell Barajas.
So, while I wait for a menu, cutlery and napkin (sadly, not Charmin, it turns out), I wander over to chat with the couple. I pose a question I never thought I’d be asking when I got into journalism 35 years ago:
“What’s it like to eat out of a toilet bowl?”
“Fun,” she says. “Exciting. This is so great. I’m glad I checked it out.”
Barajas rests his spoon on the rim and weighs in: “It’s … different.”
Then he squirms in his seat – lid down, by the way. Of all the toilets bolted into place in the spacious dining room, not one features a water tank to brace diners’ backs. Not a problem, Barajas says.
“It’s good for your posture,” he says.
It is, indeed, important not to slouch or look too slumped over as you dine at the Magic Restroom Cafe because nearly everybody whips out their smartphones and takes candid photos of the place, everything from selfies with lips on bowl rims to panoramic shots of row upon row of backsides.
That’s the goal of any restaurant, of course: to get butts in seats. And in the month since restaurateur Yo Yo Li, a Chinese national, opened this spot, business has been growing. It’s so busy on the lunch hour I visit that the manager can’t spare even a minute to talk. I look over to the entrance, and the line is almost as long as it’d be for the ladies room at a Justin Bieber concert. Fortunately, there’s a row of toilets for folks to sit on, along with plungers and even a few mounted urinals for no apparent reason other than it adds to the motif.
Li isn’t the first to come up with the restaurant-as-restroom brainstorm. Apparently, the concept began in China and Taiwan, where dozens of restaurateurs have employed the idea. Li told a TV reporter he modeled his cafe after the original Modern Toilet Restaurant in Taiwan, though he wisely chose to go mostly with Western-style commodes over the “squat” toilets popular in Asia and Europe.
The fare is dominated by curries and stews, which makes for some stark visual images. Imagine a toilet bowl brimming with glazed chunks of pan-fried dong-po pork or a steaming chicken curry for your delectation. For a moment, doesn’t it give you pause, your rational mind briefly forgetting that this is a savory dish in front of you?
“I got curry and it was brown so, you know, it was, like, hmm,” says Sharon Lin, of Rowland, dining with her friend, Tess Hamlin. “... You know what it looked like. But I still ate it. When I was pouring it into this thingy (a to-go container), I was lifting up the bowl and dumping it out. So funny.”
Hamlin was right there, of course, to whip out her phone and snap a few pics. The two friends like Taiwanese food, and were reasonably satisfied by the Magic Restroom Cafe’s creations, but that hardly was the lure.
“We have this type of relationship where we do stupid, weird stuff like this,” Hamlin says. “So, this is a natural.”
Lin and Hamlin disprove the gender stereotype that only guys are into potty humor. But, yeah, the place was teeming with grown men reverting back to what Freudian child development specialists call the anal stage.
Buddies Carlo Corbellini of Los Angeles and Chris Hubbard of West Hollywood left their trendy sections of the city to check it out. While waiting for a table, Corbellini took a shot of Hubbard posing on his toilet. Hubbard texted it to his mother, whose one-word response read: “Horrifying.”
Corbellini made it a point to lift the lid of his “chair” before settling in, making sure the customer before him had not left anything behind. He chuckled, gave Hubbard a nod.
“It satisfies something in us,” Corbellini says of this cafe’s kitsch. “We all like the jokey thing. The presentation here is fun. But it’d be nice to eat something that’s good to eat, too.”
Oh, yes, the quality of the food. For a snazzy place like this to succeed it’s got to at least offer fare that satisfies the palate. Especially since the first impression can serve as an appetite suppressant to the easily queasy.
I order the chicken curry, mostly because Lin had assured me it looks the most like you-know-what in the bowl. Got to face your fears head-on.
When it arrives, chicken and potato cubes peeking out of the sauce, I immediately take the fork and swirl it around – counterclockwise, of course, since we’re in the Northern Hemisphere. Then I dig in.
It’s good curry. Not the greatest I’ve had, but indisputably the best I’ve ever tasted coming from a toilet bowl, that’s for certain.
And, after polishing off my dish, nature called. Tempted as I may have been to ignore it, common decency and social morays dictated I get up and use the bathroom. (TMI, you say? Hey, we reached TMI territory in the first paragraph.)
How were the restrooms in the Magic Restroom Cafe?
Clean enough to eat off of.
Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis. Editor’s note: This story was changed Nov. 18 to correct City of Industry’s location in relation to Los Angeles.