"There's poop everywhere! Y-u-c-k," says 6-year-old Jordan Lien as he and his family dine at the Modern Toilet, a popular Taiwanese restaurant chain that's expanding into China and other parts of Asia. The boy was looking at the poop-shaped lights and dish covers and the curry on toilet-shaped plates.
Diarrhea for dinner? That's the point. "It's supposed to shock and confuse the senses," says Modern Toilet manager Chen Min-kuang. But as Jennifer Finch, an American who was dining there, described it, "They do it tastefully. It's all very clean." (See the top 10 food trends of 2008.)
Every customer sits on a stylish acrylic toilet (lid down) designed with images of roses, seashells or Renaissance paintings. Everyone dines at a glass table with a sink underneath. The servers bring your meal atop a mini toilet bowl (quite convenient, as it brings the food closer to your mouth), you sip drinks from your own plastic urinal (a souvenir), and soft-swirl ice cream arrives for dessert atop a dish shaped like a squat toilet. (See nine kid foods to avoid.)
I went there on a Wednesday evening, and the place was packed with students and families who were having a jolly time eating out of the john. "It's very progressive and irreverent, like a practical joke," says junior high school teacher Chen Kin-hsiang, who went because her students raved about it. "It's a little gross when you see other people eat," she says, "but when you're eating, you don't notice it, 'cause you're hungry and the aroma is appetizing." Smell is one poop-like quality the chef does without. (See pictures of China on the wild side.)
The reasonably priced food includes curries, pasta, fried chicken and Mongolian hot pot, as well as elaborate shaved-ice desserts with names like "diarrhea with dried droppings" (chocolate), "bloody poop" (strawberry) and "green dysentery" (kiwi). Despite the disturbing descriptions, the desserts were great. But after seeing curry drip down a mini-toilet, I may never have that sauce again. (See pictures of what makes you eat more food.)
The Chinese can take this, Finch muses, because they are more nonchalant about bodily functions, such as burping, farting or even going to the bathroom an act performed squatting sans doors in some places in China. But many Westerners enjoy the novelty of toilet dining too. Chris and Julia Harris took their visiting mother, who they say is obsessive-compulsive about cleanliness, to "freak her out," but she had a great time (though she refused to drink out of a urinal). The only people who have a hard time, says Chen, are the elderly who have exclaimed, "I will not eat on the toilet!" (Folding chairs and normal dishware are available for the faint of heart.) (Read "The Science of Appetite.)
Toilet creations aren't new to China. The ancient Chinese may have been the first to use the throne a flush toilet was found in a tomb of a Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 24) king and they invented toilet paper in the 6th century. Modern Toilet owner Wang Zi-wei, 29, an ex-banker, got his idea from the Japanese robot cartoon character Jichiwawa, who loves to play with poop and swirl it on a stick. Inspired by that image, Wang began selling chocolate ice cream swirls on paper squat toilets. Customers loved them and wanted more edible excretion experiences, so he opened Modern Toilet in 2004. The theme-restaurant chain now has seven outlets in Taiwan, one in Hong Kong and one opening in Shenzhen, China, this week. Plans for other cities in China, Macau, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia are also under way. Dinner à la latrine, anyone?