A few years ago, I went to a wedding in New Orleans and took more advantage of the open bar than was advisable. I didn’t know the bride or groom—I was there as a friend’s plus one—and was stuck among people who knew each other from college, high school, or even earlier. After things wound down, I went with my friend and his friends to a bar in the hotel where we were staying.
The leaving, the cab ride, the first hour in the bar, are a blur to me now, but I remember that I was talking to a man who, like me, had majored in classics, but, unlike me, had stuck with it, and was now pursuing a PhD in Ohio somewhere. His hair was so long he could sit on it.
Suddenly, my surroundings clicked into focus, and I realized that, though I had sat down by a window, I was now on the other side of the room, by the door. I was certain (or as certain as I could be) that I hadn’t gotten up and moved.
“Hang on,” I said, interrupting my companion. “How did we get here?”
“What do you mean?” he asked, frowning. “We took a cab.”
“No, no,” I said, shaking my head. “How did we get here, on the other side of the bar?”
“Um, we’re rotating. We have been this whole time.” He seemed unsure whether or not I was kidding. “It’s the Carousel Bar.”
I looked around. The place was, in fact, decorated like a carousel, the bar in the middle a circle around a column, like the carousel’s axis, with twinkling carnival lights and gilded mirrors and arabesque scrolls. And we were, I realized, very slowly moving around the central column, back towards the windows.
Though I was in no state to wonder too profoundly about the Carousel Bar that night, the questions came to me later: What was up with the whole revolving restaurant ethos? One of the reasons Western society is what it is today is our commitment to staying in one place while we eat. Knowing what we do about humans (and motion sickness), why would anyone opt for this sensation of slow displacement while they tried to enjoy their drinks? It seems oddly existential to find oneself spinning in place throughout an experience, as though to remind us that we are never truly still.
The first known revolving dining room was in Nero’s Domus Aurea (Golden Mansion). The palace, which was completed after a fire cleared the Palatine Hill of several aristocrats’ residences (one of the reasons the emperor was suspected of setting the fire himself), covered between one hundred and three hundred acres.
The historian Suetonius described the palace, with its enormous statue of the emperor (over thirty-six meters high) in a front vestibule, its tree groves, flock-filled pastures, artificial lake, the decorative elements—stucco ceilings, walls overlaid in gold, ivory, gems, and mother of pearl—as “ruinously prodigal.” He just as easily could have been describing the emperor himself, who, among other things, was known for profligate spending, particularly on architecture.
According to Suetonius, the Domus Aurea had many dining rooms, some with “fretted ceilings of ivory, whose panels could turn and shower down flowers and were fitted with pipes for sprinkling the guests with perfumes,” as well as the main banquet hall, which “was circular and constantly revolved day and night, like the heavens.”
Translators could point to this as the first revolving restaurant, but they weren’t sure Suetonius, who was born two years after Nero’s suicide, should be believed. He is generally considered not to be the most reliable historian; his Life of Nero is filled with the most salacious gossip he had heard about the emperor, from the many men and women he took as “wives” and his early persecution of Christians, to his incestuous relationship with his mother, whom he later murdered, along with his first wife and his stepbrother.
Due to Suetonius’s tendency to privilege sensation over discretion, it was assumed the revolving dining room was an exaggeration until 2009, when a team of archaeologists finally uncovered it. First, they found a tower, with a large central pillar. Eight pairs of arches buttressed two floors; the top of the upper arches were lined with semi-spherical holes that were filled with slippery clay, resembling nautical technology at the time used to transport heavy loads. It seems likely this technology supported the rotating floor, which may have been powered by water funneled through a system of gears, as suggested by calcite deposits found on nearby stones.
Why a man like Nero would want a rotating banquet hall seems clear to me. He was an egomaniac, certainly, but one with a truly artistic sensibility and a real appreciation for building and architecture. The entire Domus Aurea was intended to be used only to impress and amuse his guests. Suetonius likened the dining room to the way the “heavens”—meaning the skies above—were constantly rotating overhead.
Disorienting diners would have been a plus for Nero—like any all-powerful leader, he liked to keep those around him on their toes—but reminding modern restaurant guests that the world is constantly spinning seems like less of a good idea. So why subject paying customers to an experience so nauseating?
Though the first design for a rotating restaurant appeared in 1929, ahead of the Chicago World’s Fair, an actual physical version of it didn’t come until 1959, in Dortmund, Germany. A television tower named the Florianturm was constructed in the area, and authorities wanted to find other ways to make money on the enormous eyesore. They built a restaurant at the lower head of the structure, and made it rotate for the purpose of enabling everyone in the restaurant to consume every possible permutation of the view. This was typical of the time in West Germany, when an economic boom, combined with the leveling of almost all of the country’s structures by bombing, created both the resources and need for profligate expansion.
Two years later, the United States caught up, when La Ronde appeared at the top of the Ala Moana Building in Honolulu. The restaurant looked like a flying saucer that happened to land on a corner of the hotel building, an otherwise boring structure of windows and concrete. Like many revolving restaurants—and depictions of flying saucers—this one no longer exists.
The next rotating restaurant came in 1962, built on the Space Needle for the Seattle World’s Fair. Now called the SkyCity Restaurant, it still rotates five hundred feet above the ground. In the following two decades, more rotating restaurants went up in North America, many of them associated with some kind of large event, like a fair or exhibition. The CN Tower in Toronto, for example, was built in 1976 as a demonstration of Canadian industry, while the Sunsphere, a gold-colored glass sphere at the top of a tower in Knoxville, Tennessee, was constructed to celebrate the 1982 World’s Fair.
These structures are what Chad Randl calls “architectural barnacles” in his book Revolving Architecture: A History of Buildings That Rotate, Swivel, and Pivot. This term refers to the fact that rotating restaurants latch on to a “host” building or pre-existing natural features. So, a sight like Niagara Falls would already have customers and a desirable view built in, while a communications tower would provide the height needed, allowing the restaurant to become a source of ancillary income. The Cold War’s impetus for rapid innovation, and desire to flaunt that innovation, encouraged revolving restaurants as symbols of cutting-edge technology taken to a gratuitous extreme.
The question remains: what draws people to rotating restaurants now? Certainly not the food. Like many of the remaining rotating restaurants, vestigial holdouts in a culture that has turned against them, the SkyCity Restaurant is not known for its cuisine. In a review for The Stranger titled “The Travesty of Dinner at the Space Needle,” Bethany Jean Clement describes her crab cakes. “The first bite of crab cake has a piece of shell in it,” she writes. “This piece of shell will prove to be the strongest connection to the sea the crab cake can muster.” And, while she admits, “the view—it’s true—is amazing,” she goes on to insist, “What they do to a pork chop at SkyCity ought to be punishable by law.” A Yelp user who gave the restaurant two stars writes: “First let me say that I feel I’m being a bit generous with my rating. This is for sure a tourist trap plain and simple.” A tourist trap lures in unsuspecting travelers with the promise of a once-in-a-lifetime experience, corners them (in this case, spins them), and empties their wallets. Tourists come for the view, but stay to pay $35 to $80 a head for unremarkable food and poor service.
I surveyed some friends on what they thought of revolving restaurants. Most said they’d never tried one, while one friend summed her thoughts up succinctly: “Against. Nausea. Perverts. Bad food. ” These places, once awe-inspiring, now seem out-of-date and hokey. What was once classy is now camp.
Which brings us back to Nero. The emperor was the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, a line begun when Augustus took over after the assassination of Julius Caesar. The early Julio-Claudians were impressive leaders, winning wars and developing policies. Nero, on the other hand, was vestigial, an over-the-top, expensive barnacle on the empire. Suetonius writes: “Above all he was carried away by a craze for popularity and he was jealous of all who in any way stirred the feeling of the mob… He had a longing for immortality and undying fame, though it was ill-regulated.” Though Nero fostered innovation in engineering and the arts, at the end of the day, he was a self-centered egomaniac for whom the love of the people was paramount.
While revolving restaurants in the West are going the way of the Roman Empire, in developing economies in the East, the fad is just catching on. There are new revolving restaurants in Mumbai and Abu Dhabi, twenty-seven in China, and seventeen in India, just to name a few. These restaurants seem to be carrying on similar traditions to those in the West. As one diner on Yelp put it: “The order was wrong and the service was so slow that the place revolved faster!” Perhaps this is an inevitable life cycle—a country gains wealth, it develops, it builds revolving restaurants as a symbol of that wealth and development, and then, all too soon, the restaurants become hokey symbols of a bygone era, where only tourists would dare to tread.
Nero represents a similar cycle in the history of the Roman Empire, the logical conclusion of the concentration of wealth and power in just a handful of people, slowly spinning at the top of the world, until those people lose sight of all reality beyond the satisfaction of their own whims, making them unpleasant and obsolete, which causes them to be removed, and the cycle begins again.