A Trip Inside Beetle House, New York’s Spooky Tim Burton–Themed Restaurant
I’m a sucker for movie themed food and drinks. I once cooked a Louisiana-style feast with a friend for an Oscar screening of Beasts of the Southern Wild, served hamburgers and SunnyD for a group screening of Juno, and ordered crepes for Midnight in Paris. So it only made sense that I jumped at the opportunity to check out the new Tim Burton-themed restaurant with a group of fellow film writers last week.
Burton’s imaginative and decorative filmography particularly lends itself to themed events. You could base an entire party on one Burton film alone — who’d refuse an Edward Scissorhands or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory theme? But in Manhattan’s East Village you’ll find Beetle House, a new bar and restaurant that celebrates all things Burton (well, almost all). Under pink and purple lighting, the walls of the narrow restaurant are lined with original artworks featuring Pee-wee Herman, Beetlejuice, and Jack Skellington. Vintage decor and antiques are sprinkled throughout, with old fashioned medical tools, iron keys, and giant butterfly wings hanging around diners and in the bathrooms. The chandeliers, fake spider webs and skeleton skulls amidst dim lighting and Danny Elfman-scored tracks on the speakers, create a spooky atmosphere, like a scene right out of Sleepy Hollow with a hint of A Nightmare Before Christmas.
The restaurant sports a nostalgic aesthetic that playfully mixes kitschy and creepy; as much as it feels like an ode to Burton’s movies, Beetle House’s antique furnishings fit right in with other New York tavern-style hipster bars. It’s a more upscale establishment than owners Zach Neil and Brian Link’s sister bar Stay Classy New York, a Will Ferrell-themed dive that opened last fall and mainly serves drinks. While Stay Classy offers trivia and karaoke nights, you’ll need a reservation for dinner at Beetle House. (And if you book on a Friday or Saturday, you’ll see the the infamous bio-exorcist ghost himself.)
Beetle House’s menu is mostly heavy pub fare inspired by Burton’s gothic films. There are entrees like the Victor Van Pork (a play on Corpse Bride’s Victor Van Dort), the Sweeney Beef, and the I Love It Pot Pie, all with meat “sourced locally from 100 percent innocent humans captured wild on the streets of NYC.” You got to admit, that’s clever!
It’s the little embellishments on the menu and throughout the restaurant make it feel like a place built on genuine fandom rather than a corporate eatery at a theme park stuffing merchandise down your throat. (The owners make it known on their website that they have no affiliation with Burton or Warner Bros, but that hasn’t stopped the studio from sending them a cease-and-desist).
When it came time to order, I opted to sample smaller plates over entrees. The Our Veruca Wings (with salted honey garlic) came sitting in a pool of grease with some wilted green onions on top (garnish, I guess?). They tasted like a typical order of late night take-out, nothing I felt inclined to finish. The appetizer of Cheshire Mac and Cheese wasn’t bad, though I couldn’t distinguish the seven types of cheese supposedly baked into the noodles, all oddly topped with a sweet marinara sauce. Overall the food looked and tasted like something you’d find at TGI Fridays or Chili’s, which isn’t terrible, but with such care applied to the rest of the restaurant you’d expect some higher quality food. With only eight entrees priced from $14 to $30 (there are $10 steak taquitos, but I refuse to consider taquitos a legitimate entree), there aren’t many affordable choices nor a variety of main courses.
While the food certainly wasn’t “To Die For” as the menu title insists, the drinks were the main highlight. The fourteen homemade cocktails are mostly sweet confections inspired by the latter half of Burton’s career. For those who prefer liquid candy, there’s the Chocolate Chocolate Martini, the Big Fish Bowl ($24 worth of alcohol for two) with Nerds and Swedish Fish, and The Nine, a green sour apple martini inspired by the titular Burton-produced animated movie. For those hoping to take a trip down the hangover rabbit hole there’s also Alice’s Cup O’ Tea, a Long Island Iced Tea. I tried the The Beetles Juice, a refreshing tequila and blackberry drink that tasted more like spiked cranberry juice (no complaints there).
My favorite thing I ordered was the Glen or Glenda, a tequila cocktail with mango puree and chipotle powder with a twig of rosemary. Inspired by the masculine and feminine sides of the crossdressing director Ed Wood (played by Johnny Depp in the 1994 Burton movie), the drink starts off with a creamy and fruity palate and rounds out with a spicy, savory kick. I also tried a sip of the Barnabas Collins, a smooth rye whiskey cocktail, and the Bio-exorcism, a refreshing take on the Gin Rickey with muddled cucumbers. But there’s no denying the drinks are all about the gimmick; for $14 each, you could spend the same if not less at any nearby speakeasy for a more premium cocktail.
As creative and inspired as was Beetle House, I couldn’t help but think of the restaurant’s many missed opportunities. Where was the Pee-wee inspired drink — does any movie character pair better with tequila? Or how about something in honor of Batman Returns, like a Penguin black and white cookie? And why the love for Dark Shadows over a food-based classic like James and the Giant Peach? Beetle House could be much stronger if they focused more on original Burton-themed drinks and limited their food menu to appetizers and snack plates, which would allow people to pop in for a drink and a bite rather than wait for a reservation for a mediocre meal. Plus, there’s plenty of places to find an outstanding burger in New York for less than the $18 Edward Burger Hands, (unless maybe they gave you scissorhands in place of utensils. If that were the case, I’m in).
All critiques aside, Beetle House still proved to be a fun experience and festive alternative to the usual over-packed bars of its neighborhood. It offers Burton fans and film nerds a place to geek out with boozy drinks in a place where Halloween never dies.
Beetle House is located at 308 E. 6th Street in Manhattan.