They say you eat with your eyes first, and oh my, what an eye-poppingly visual feast is on offer at The Bubble Room restaurant in Florida.
Think of all things that children adore: Christmas, toys, cakes… And they are here with bells on, day in day out, all tied up in a kitsch ‘n’ kooky celebration of all things Americana.
From the outside, you might initially be mistaken for thinking that the delicate ice-cream pastel décor of the Bubble Room is just another of the prettily painted abodes that adorn the streets of Captiva, one of the two barrier islands, along with Sanibel, that perch on the coast of southwest Florida (there are low-impact zone restrictions in place, ensuring the architecture is limited and subtle – at least on the outside – so there are no high-rise buildings to detract from the island’s natural beauty). Once inside the Bubble Room, however, it’s pretty fair to say that nothing is subtle: this is unashamedly bold, brash, brilliant and proud of it.
First opened in 1979, The Bubble Room started with modest beginnings of just a few tables in the front room of the home of the Farqhuarson family. Today, there are five dining rooms set across three floors, each decorated with twinkling Christmas lights while colourful fish swim in tanks and toy trains chug their way around an elevated track that circles the room.
With over 3,500 artefacts, antiques and knickknacks, The Bubble Room is more akin to a museum of childish archives, with a treasure trove of toys and games from the last century – from original Disney memorabilia to classic American construction toys like Lincoln Logs
In truth, it’s parents of a certain age who are most likely to feel wistful yearnings seeing Popeye or Betty Boop, but children will still recognise some familiar characters, like the monkey with clashing cymbals from Toy Story 3 (and yes, he still looks ever-so-slightly creepy and sinister in the dulled rosy lighting of the restaurant). The dedicated Christmas Room is sure to delight too, with its various Santas and elves in year-round residence (Note: some of the more dated toys can be a little bit on the scary side, so make sure you’re on hand to reassure a timid toddler. Most children, however, are more likely to have eyes on stalks with the sheer extravagant splendor of it all).
The Bubble Room almost gives you a sense of time travelling, as you step back into a bygone era of glamorous Hollywood starlets (ever been spied on by a watchful Montgomery Clift while you pee? Mmm yes, there are photographs everywhere). Every inch of wall is adorned with black-and-white images of some or other Hollywood great, from Lucille Ball to Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart (plus a few we couldn’t identify) so there’s definitely an opportunity to give your child a crash course in iconic movie history, while a soundtrack of jukebox favourites, along the lines of “You must have been a beautiful baby” from the 1920s, 30s and 40s tinkles away in the background.
And that’s before you’ve even started on the menu. As you might expect, the dishes on offer are equally big and bold, offering another nod to Hollywood with playful names. Children under 10 can choose from The Chicken Little (chicken breast fillet), Moby Dick (grouper fish fingers), Speedy Gonzalez (grilled cheese sandwich) or, as favoured by seven-year-old Joe, The Cow Jumped Over the Moon (sirloin steak patty). We also tried the “Chan” Man’s Favourite Shrimp (six gulf prawns dipped in buttermilk and beer batter; thankfully, the batter was very accommodating in falling off, leaving the succulent shellfish in its more natural glory) and The Great One (an 8oz filet mignon steak). For drinks, Grace chose a Shirley Temple mocktail (a pink concoction of grenadine and soda water, served in an old-fashioned jam jar with a striped paper straw) while Joe opted to boost his calcium intake with a carton of fresh milk. All portions, including children’s, are more than ample: in fact, you’ll be hard pushed to find any white space on your plate, as they’re piled high with extras like coleslaw and corn on the cob, all masquerading as your ‘salad’ accompaniment. You’ll definitely need a breather before you attempt your next challenge.
Dessert is a must. You may think you’ve seen Red Velvet Cake but you ain’t seen nothing till you’ve seen the giant slab of Bubble Room ruby sponge (at a rough estimate around 12cm high). Your Bubble Scout (your waiter, dressed in scout attire of high-length shorts and baseball cap, without a hint of irony) will present a tray of temptations and, even though you thought you were full, somehow you just can’t help yourself. Of course, we could have ordered one dessert and three spoons: instead, we went for the full hog (never a truer phrase) and opted for one Red Velvet, one Chocolate Devil’s Cake, and one Oreo and Butterfinger Ice-Cream Cake. Luckily, they offer doggy bags, so we also left not only with full bellies, but also a bag full of cakes to enjoy later.
Why go? The Bubble Room is more than a restaurant; it’s a spectacular piece of kitsch theatre with so much to admire and discover at every nook and cranny, and surprises to make you smile at every corner. Where else can you see Santa and his elves every day of the year?
Best for The hungry. The portions are generous, and it’s impossible to dine skinny. This is not an eatery for the calorie-conscious, though they are looking to introduce more dishes that cater for those with food allergies. The restaurant happily caters for children of all ages, with highchairs and changing facilities, but it’s quite a confined area with a lot of stuff so it’s not that particularly compatible with toddlers who like to roam. However, there are sufficient distractions all around to hopefully keep those with a propensity to wander in their seats.
Our Favourite Bit The truly over-the-top exuberance of this one-of-a-kind dining extravaganza. And dessert.
Top Tip If you are staying in the area, you could always have your first course one day, then nip back for dessert the next. And although calorie-counting is tricky, you can always share a mighty main.
Don’t Go Expecting haute cuisine. This is a sensory dining experience that appeals to your eyes and ears as much as your tastebuds. Indeed, some might argue that ‘taste’ is not at the top of the agenda. Those with a hankering for minimal design may baulk at the sheer amount of clutter.
While You’re Here Stop by the beach to take a digestif stroll and work off some of that feeling of over-indulgent gluttony. The beaches are famed for their fabulous shells and wildlife, and the sunsets are truly stunning. If you have time, other attractions in the area include the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW) centre, or a Captiva Cruise from McCarthy’s Marina where you’ll spot dolphins frolicking.