EDITOR’S NOTE: After more than 20 years of serving dreadfully-delicious quick-service menu offerings, Monster’s Café in Universal Studios Florida permanently closed in the spring of 2022 to make way for a new dining experience.
Universal Pictures is revered as the movie studio that launched the horror film genre. Frightful forefathers like Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Mummy and the Creature from the Black Lagoon not only terrorized audiences of their day, but they also inspired and fueled the imaginations of countless writers, artists and filmmakers of future generations who would go on to create some of the most epic movies of all time. Films that have been brought to life in the immersive experiences of Universal Orlando Resort, as well as Halloween Horror Nights (HHN).
With that kind of legacy, it would be monstrous not to give these ghoulish godfathers a proper tribute. That, my Fiends, is why we have the Universal Studios’ Classic Monsters Cafe
This casual quick-service restaurant provides a themed dining experience like no other in Universal Studios Florida. Steeped in devilish decor and classic monster memorabilia, it’s the only place where you can grab a bite within the stone walls of Dracula’s Castle, the eerie swamps of the Black Lagoon or the foreboding forests where The Wolf Man stalks his prey. Here you’ll salivate over the park’s most mouth-watering barbecue as it’s being carved under the electrified coils of Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory.
It’s located just across from the Music Plaza stage near the big red Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit roller coaster. If you still can’t find it, look for a giant rotating pedestal featuring the oversized likenesses of The Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Gillman holding menus and plates of food.
You really can’t miss it, but if you did, I’m here to tell you why you shouldn’t the next time you’re in the park.
The Universal Studios’ Classic Monsters Cafe didn’t mutate into its recognizable form until 1998, when the decision was made to reimagine the existing Studio Stars, which was one of three full-service restaurants in the park along with Finnegan’s Irish Pub and Lombard’s Landing. Studio Stars featured memorabilia and celebrity photos from the golden age of Hollywood.
“We decided we would revamp Studio Stars and totally change it into a fast-casual, posh restaurant,” according to Executive Chef, Steve Jayson, who’s been feeding guests at Universal Orlando Resort since the first theme park opened in 1990, which makes him the perfect person to offer a history lesson.
But this revamp wasn’t just about a new menu, it was up to the creative team to come up with a killer new concept for the establishment that rivaled the highly themed restaurants of the day.
“At the time, themed restaurants were all the rage,” according to Jason Surrell, Sr. Creative Director at Universal Creative. “Particularly, locations like Hard Rock Cafe, which was in its heyday. So that was really what informed the original design. It was like, how can we be part of this themed restaurant craze and pay homage to — really — the stars that built Universal Pictures in many ways?”
And from the shadows arose the concept of the Universal Studios’ Classic Monsters Cafe. [Cue the thunder and lightning sound effects.]
IT’S ALIVE! MAKING A MONSTER…CAFÉ
To bring the new concept to life, the creative team brought in huge replicas of hand-painted movie posters of the era, hung studio lighting fixtures and fabricated props to make guests feel like they were on the set of their favorite classic horror movies. Film clips and trailers were featured on screens throughout the restaurant to provide extra entertainment while dining, but the creative team didn’t stop there.
They transformed each seating area into immersive environments referential of each of the monster’s homelands, the centerpiece of course being Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory, which doubled as the main serving area where guests would order food. Instead of resurrecting the dead, though, kitchen staff served up a new array of savory dishes.
“If you look at the layout of the restaurant it is sort of divided up [into zones] by monster,” says Jason Surrell, who explained the method to the madness. “So when you first enter, the lab is where you get your food — in many ways themed at the heart of that Universe. That’s the place where Frankenstein’s monster is brought back to life. From there, we tried to batch the monsters in a way that made the most sense. So Dracula and Frankenstein kind of paired nicely together because they both take place in castle environments, on the one side. The Creature From the Black Lagoon and The Wolf Man because they both live more in the natural world. And then you’ve got your sci-fi area beyond that and then we also have an area that is primarily Mummy. We also touch on Phantom and Hunchback.”
The kitchen was also reworked so that it complimented the new theme, tantalizing guests with the sights and smells of wood-fired fare.
“The whole idea in the Universal Studios’ Classic Monsters Cafe was to make it a little eerie looking in there,” recalls Chef Jayson. “We put a big wood rotisserie right out there…we had the pits rotating right there with whatever meats we put on it, then we had this big wood-fired pizza oven next to it on the left when you faced the serving line.”
The frightfully fun new design and quick-service format made a lasting impression with guests. Universal Studios’ Classic Monsters Cafe was a hit!
“We did great with that, that was a big success, and that’s why it’s still Universal Studios’ Classic Monsters Cafe today.” – Chef Jayson.
FROM FRIGHTS TO BITES
You may have noticed earlier that I mentioned that Universal Studios’ Classic Monsters Cafe is a barbecue restaurant. Well it is, but it didn’t start out that way. About five years ago, Chef Jayson and team embarked on their own mad experiment to offer guests a cuisine that had not yet been prominently featured in the parks.
You could find a few barbecue offerings at the NBC Sports Grill & Brew in Universal CityWalk like brisket and pulled pork, but guests typically leaned toward standard sports bar staples like nachos, jumbo pretzels, and its wide selection of hamburgers.
“I just said, you know, we need to do more of that but we need to get it in the park,” recalled Chef Jayson. “So we put it in Monsters and added all those cool sides. It was a really big success and the guests loved it.”
You bet your bats they did. After the transformation, Universal Studios’ Classic Monsters Cafe became a full-fledged barbecue restaurant with some seriously tasty meats and sides to sink your fangs into.
“We had this really nice wood smoked barbecue chicken and we had some beautiful sauces to go with it. We introduced pork ribs. We had the brisket there that we carved. We got these little half sheet pans, put a paper liner, and we put the food right on top of the liner there, so it had that real barbecue restaurant feel to it. You put some pulled pork and maybe a couple slices of brisket and then you put your sides, some Franken Mac n Cheese or some French Fang Fries or Creepy Spice Roasted Cauliflower or whatever you wanted.”
If the fleshy features aren’t your forte, the team introduced alternative plant-based options for vegetarian and vegan guests, including a delicious slow cooked jackfruit sandwich and platter.
“As vegan[ism] started to grow in popularity, it started to really become a focus for us. From experience, I know that jackfruit works out very, very well. It’s just got that fleshy, meaty kinda texture to it, and it holds up well to barbecue sauce and the flavor comes through and it makes for a great sandwich.”
When it comes to picking favorites though, look no further than the succulent slow-cooked brisket.
“For me, it would be the brisket and — hear me out — I am not a big beef-eater. I am not a sirloin steak kind of guy, but the one place where I’ll indulge would be on some good brisket. If I go to Texas and I go to one of these places that are known, I’m gonna try their brisket. We smoke ours here and it takes 17 hours to smoke our briskets. So brisket would be my pick, along with maybe the Brussels sprouts.”
Chef Jayson went on to tell me how he came about acquiring the rub he’s been using on Universal’s brisket and ribs for over 20 years. It involves a National Barbecue Competition, a guy named Curly, and a handshake. But that’s another blog for another time. Take it from him though, “It’s good stuff!”
THEMED FOR SCREAMS
The food isn’t the only aspect of the restaurant that has been improved upon in recent years, with the theming also receiving a refresh in 2017 to bring new vibrancy and allure to the restaurant.
As you first enter the establishment, you’ll be flanked by life-sized dioramas of Frankenstein to your right and The Wolf Man to your left. Be glad I warned you and spared you the shriek, because they are absolutely spook-tacular.
Once inside, you’ll encounter the main serving area, which is the nexus of this horror haven, elaborately themed like Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. Metallic support columns feature the menacing mugs of the Universal Monsters, including The Bride of Frankenstein and more. Flickering and pulsating light invigorate the room with vivid color and energy. The centerpiece is an electrified glowing orb fixed to a large metal coil clearly devised for channeling a lightning storm for one of Doctor Frankenstein’s maniacal experiments.
After you’ve escaped with your meal, you’ll make your way to one of the condiment areas, which are colorfully illuminated by an assortment of bubbling vials, flasks and beakers. Their intention is unknown, but I like to think that the good doctor is perfecting a new style barbecue sauce.
From there, you’ll have your choice of several disturbingly decorated dining areas all expertly themed to put you at the heart of each monster’s homeland.
Perhaps the most significant revamp is in the science fiction dining area just beyond the Black Lagoon – which itself features another captivating diorama of the infamous Gillman and partial hull of the swamp-faring vessel “The Rita.”
The science fiction dining room feels like you’ve just been abducted into a 50’s era alien invasion movie. Here the walls are covered in an arsenal of alien weaponry. There’s a colorful bust of the Metaluna Mutant and other alien beings, and you can even sit under a looming flying saucer. Clips from classic sci-fi favorites play on flat screens nearby providing the perfect ambience to chow down on some ribs.
Ultimately, you can’t go wrong with any dining area you choose and that’s what’s part of the fun. Each section has its own characteristics and charm and affectionately pays homage to the monster from which it’s inspired. I’d recommend trying a new spot every time you go.
LET’S WRAP IT UP
The Universal Studios’ Classic Monsters Cafe is the perfect tribute to the classic monsters and monster-makers that helped forge the legacy of Universal Pictures and has become so ingrained in the DNA of Universal Studios Florida.
Horror heavies like Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man have thrilled multiple generations of audiences throughout the years and now the Universal Studios’ Classic Monsters Cafe continues that tradition by providing a gateway experience to an even younger group of creature-lovers with affection and reverence.
I know with my family, a visit to the Universal Studios’ Classic Monsters Cafe is a shared experience that we can all enjoy. My young son is not quite ready for Halloween Horror Nights, but we can always go to the Universal Studios’ Classic Monsters Cafe for some creepy casual dining and to relish in the fright and lore of those famous monsters.
Oh, and before we close the coffin lid on this eerie exposé, my personal go-to dish is The Black Lagoon Salad. A hearty bowl of greens and veggies topped with Chef Jayson’s legendary slow-cooked brisket. I wish I could put fire emojis in this article because I would probably put eleven. It’s seriously that good. Also, as anyone who knows me can attest, I’m a pretty big fan of the Gillman, so for me it’s the perfect monster meal.
As for Jason Surrell, who worked on the original design all those years ago, the cafe has become a special place for his family as well.
“It’s almost surreal to not only step into something you worked on so long ago, but my son, who’s seven, is absolutely in love with the Universal Monsters. So it’s just taken on additional meaning for me today as a parent and knowing that these characters are kind of a great gateway to scary things and horror movies, but you know, in more of a wholesome, safe way. It definitely continues to inspire young people and attract people to the world of the monsters.”
Are you a Universal Monster lover? Tell us who your all-time favorite monster is in the comments.