TAIPEI — Taiwanese embrace new fads with alarming speed — and often drop them just as quickly. "Sea-salt" coffee is but one recent example.

Along with this love of novelty comes a propensity for cheesy theme restaurants. The latest: a "jumbo jet" restaurant modeled after the inside of an Airbus 380. Naturally, "stewardesses" bring your food.

The A380 In-flight Kitchen boasts airplane cabin decor, and various other touches from dining in the sky. At 7 every evening there's an "in-flight announcement," after which free soda is passed out.

Meals are served on custom plates resembling airplane trays, and the kids' set meal comes on a plate shaped like a space shuttle. The restaurant boasts a "first class" section in back, with larger spaces for big groups and parties. In addition to the regular service, the waitress rolls around a beverage cart loaded with beer, coffee and juice.

One "stewardess," who gave only her first name, Melinda, actually worked as a real-life flight attendent for five years on China Airlines. She says the restaurant has been packing customers in lately due to massive media exposure, including from Japanese TV. (The Japanese hold their own in the offbeat-theme-restaurant department, as this article shows.)

Customers' only disappointment so far, Melinda, says is that the "overhead luggage compartments" are only decoration. "They'll say to me, 'Can I put my luggage in the overhead bin?' And I have to tell them, 'No, sorry, you can't open that.'"

Asked why theme restaurants are so popular with Taiwanese, assistant manager Emily Lu said, "Taiwanese always like something fresh. When they see it they want to go try it."

The jet restaurant joins several other long-standing theme joints on the island. Taiwan boasts race-car theme restaurants, a "hospital" restaurant and "toilet" restaurants, where food is served in mini-commodes and bathtubs.

At the DS hospital theme restaurant, a stethoscope-wielding, doctors' coat-clad hostess greets guests and takes reservations. Waitresses in nurse uniforms serve cocktails to your glass from an old-fashioned glass IV bottle or (for shots) test-tubes. The restaurant decor features X-rays on the wall, wheelchairs, crutches and an "emergency room" (the bathroom).

On Thursday night, diners Chen Ching-yan and his two female co-workers said their favorite things about the restaurant were the IV-bottle drink service and the pretty nurses. "Our working hours can be really stressful, so we like coming to a restaurant like this to unwind," said one of Chen's co-workers.

Teens and college students are the target market for one of Taiwan's most successful theme restaurant chains, Modern Toilet. Here, customers sit on toilets and eat on covered washbasins. The most popular dishes are chocolate ice cream or curry chicken, served in a mini-toilet. Why?

"It looks like poo-poo," explained Jary Wei, assistant manager at the chain's Taipei branch. "The customers think it's funny."

There are nine Modern Toilet joints island-wide, though Wei says some of those may close due to the current recession. "It's really affected our business," said Wei.

Taiwan's government last week reported a stunning 8.36 percent gross domestic product drop in the last quarter of 2008 — the largest drop since the government began compiling such statistics in 1961 — and now forecasts the island's economy will contract an additional 3 percent for the full year in 2009.

Taiwan's consumers, like their counterparts in the U.S., have cut back in today's tough times. For most, ice cream spooned into toilet bowls probably doesn't qualify as essential spending.

But the bad economy may not be as big a threat to such restaurants as the fickle taste of Taiwanese diners.

Take Taipei's much-hyped "prison" restaurant. It featured dining in mock jail cells, and even wall photos of Nazi concentration camps, which were taken down after a public outcry. But the restaurant closed a couple years ago, say the site's current tenants. In its place is a humble pasta joint.

Like the island's short-lived pop stars, Taiwan's latest theme restaurant may turn out to be only the flavor of the month.

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"Jackass" or marketing opportunity?

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