If you’ve always dreamed of owning a revolving restaurant, you’re in luck: The Roma, in Durban, South Africa, is about to go up on the auction block. Looking at this kitschy jewel of architecture made me curious about who invented rotating restaurants. One Internet search later, and up came a fantastic feature by Tom Vanderbilt that ran in Metropolis Magazine 10 years ago. It tells you just about everything you’d want to know about spinning eateries. Turns out the very first one was La Ronde in Honolulu, which was designed by John Graham in 1961. But it was Graham’s second revolving restaurant that caught the imagination of the public: The Eye of the Needle (now called Sky City), atop Seattle’s Space Needle. Vanderbilt writes:
The Space Needle put the revolving restaurant on the map. Suddenly, every city was clamoring for one of Graham’s patented revolving restaurants (or perhaps someone else’s: Rod Kirkwood, an engineer who worked with Graham, says, ‘We learned fairly early on that a patent didn’t keep somebody from doing what we had done’). The revolving restaurant became not just a big tourist draw but a must-have weapon in the civic arsenal of every latter-day Babbitt: revolving restaurants were the riverboat casinos of the Sixties and Seventies.
Serious Eats tracked down another great article on the subject, this one in Invention & Technology Magazine, which addresses the engineering challenges of making a restaurant rotate—as well as the challenges to waitstaff:
Harry Mullikin, who was in charge of setting up the restaurant, commented, ‘When the waitress went into the kitchen she would come back out with no idea where her table had gone. Guests had the same problem. They would get up to go to the restroom but when they came back they couldn’t find their tables.’ The dining area was eventually divided into four zones, with a color code for each. That still didn’t help guests who discovered that the purses and bags they had left on the stationary windowsills by their tables were no longer there.
A recent Dallas Morning New article claims that rotating restaurants are back in vogue. So get those auction estimates ready; don’t let opportunity sail past you like a purse on a window sill.