Everything I Learned from Eating at 16 Different Hard Rock Cafes Around the World
My love affair with the rock and roll-themed restaurant chain began in 2013.
I’ll try any food once. Scorpions roasted on street stalls in Bangkok, freshly baked pastries sold from the back of a bicycle in Sri Lanka, live squid sliced into sashimi and splashed with soy sauce at a Japanese fish market.
You’d probably assume, then, that I’d actively avoid chain restaurants when travelling in favour of more “authentic” eating experiences. You’d be wrong. I have eaten at 16 different Hard Rock Cafes in countries around the world and I’ve enjoyed almost every one.
My love affair with the rock and roll-themed restaurant chain, known for its burgers, collectable t-shirts, and music memorabilia displays, began in 2013. I was in Kraków on a family trip to Poland to celebrate my 23rd birthday. We had just checked into our hotel when my mum made a suggestion: “Let’s go to Hard Rock Cafe.”
Unsurprisingly, I was skeptical. “Great, let’s eat American food in Poland. Good shout, Mum.”
Despite my protestations, the allure of burgers after a long day of traveling won out, and my family decided to take my mum up on her suggestion. We headed to Kraków’s famous historic market square, bypassing the pierogi and borscht being served at bustling local restaurants, to Hard Rock Cafe Kraków, which stands opposite St. Mary’s Basilica. I was still sceptical, but as soon as we walked in, we were greeted by impossibly friendly staff wearing lanyards weighed down with collectable pins. We ordered burgers and listened to David Bowie. By the end of the night, I'd bought a souvenir t-shirt.
My next Hard Rock Cafe experience came the following year, when I was backpacking in South East Asia. A couple of months in and my diet mainly consisted of noodles and 7-Eleven lemon puffs. When I reached Bangkok, my need for home comfort foods started to surface. Some friends I was travelling with suggested that we go to the Hard Rock Cafe in Siam Square. Suddenly, my craving for onion rings was too strong to resist and once again, I found myself in a new country, eating a cheeseburger and listening to classic rock—and having the time of my life.
Much like my Polish Hard Rock Cafe experience, I was blown away by how enthusiastic the staff were at the Bangkok location. They seemed to truly love their jobs and thrived off customer interaction. My friends thought that it would be hilarious to tell the staff that it was my birthday (I blame the keg of beer that they ordered and successfully consumed). The lights were dimmed and a cheesecake with sparklers appeared. The whole restaurant sang “Happy Birthday” to me.
Thanks to these experiences—and my obsessive nature—I have now been to 16 Hard Rock Cafes and counting. If I’m travelling in a new city, I like to find out whether the chain has a location there. Some highlights include being served by the excitable 70-year-old Delia at Hard Rock Cafe London, who has been working at the chain since the 1980s and has an incomparable knowledge of every sauce on the menu. Then there was Hard Rock Las Vegas, where I cured my two-for-one cocktail hangover with a burger that the chef was happy cook rare. At Hard Rock Cafe Budapest, I used their free Wi-Fi to attempt to buy Glastonbury tickets. (I failed but the free Wi-Fi is still great.)
After eating at so many Hard Rock Cafes, I know my way around the menu pretty well. I usually order the guacamole-covered Fiesta Burger, but each branch is also supposed to offer a “Local Legendary” burger, which takes inspiration from the best of the local cuisine. New York City has a “pizza burger” and Dublin’s version comes topped with a fried egg. (I think I prefer the Fiesta Burger.)
However, not all the Hard Rock Cafes have lived up to expectations. I really wouldn’t recommend the one at Niagara Falls. The atmosphere was flat, the service wasn’t up to its usual VIP standards, and they got my order wrong. That was one bad case out of many, though.
Of course, the Hard Rock Cafe experience isn't all about the food. Diners also come to gaze at the signed guitars and clothing from famous musicians. Some of my favourite memorabilia items include Depeche Mode’s keyboard and a red bra that once belonged to Annie Lennox. But over the years, the main draw for me to Hard Rock Cafe has been the chance to meet servers and customers from all over the world. I remember being at a branch in Berlin and having a long conversation with Rachel from London, a short-lived backpacker who fell in love and never quite made it past Alexanderplatz.
So, what started off as a curious burger fix has turned into an obsession. Hard Rock Cafe has locations in 61 countries around the world and I’m determined to visit even more. I am flying to Scotland in May and plan to spend a couple of days in Glasgow, where I will make my much anticipated, 17th Hard Rock Cafe visit. I just hope the Local Legendary burger isn’t served in a sheep’s stomach.