On August 15, 1961, Seattle architect John Graham filed patent 3,125,189 for “a restaurant of novel construction, which is to be erected at a considerable elevation on a supporting structure on the top of a building or on a tower built for the purpose.” So the customers could enjoy the view, the dining area was to feature “a rotating annular floor equipped with tables and chairs and having its outer edge lying close to the outer wall.” The result was the Eye of the Needle (later renamed SkyCity), the revolving restaurant at the top of the Space Needle. During the 1962 World’s Fair, twenty thousand visitors a day waited more than two hours for a chance to eat in the restaurant. Even Elvis ate there in It Happened at the World’s Fair.
The world’s first revolving restaurant had been unveiled three years earlier, at the Florianturm in Dortmund, Germany. La Ronde followed later that year at the Ala Moana Center in Honolulu, then the nation’s largest shopping mall. By 1961, a revolving restaurant crowned the Tower of Cairo, long the tallest building in Africa, and the Henniger Turm, the grain silo of the Henninger brewery in Frankfurt.
The German towers proved a rotating, high-altitude tourist restaurant could be successful, and the Space Needle introduced the concept to the world.
In the decades following the 1962 World’s Fair, revolving restaurants sprouted up across the globe. At least 65 countries and 29 states would eventually boast one or more. They topped hotels, television towers, and even Swiss Alps. Bond-villain Ernst Blofeld had his secret mountaintop laboratory in the revolving restaurant at Saas-Fee, Switzerland, the highest in the world at 11,000 feet. Reykjavik’s revolving restaurant sits atop old hot water storage tanks beside a geyser. And in Pyongyang, the original plans of the 105-story Ryugyong Hotel, still unfinished after 27 years, called for five of them.
But these restaurants weren’t the first structures to rotate. As documented in Revolving Architecture: A History of Buildings that Rotate, Swivel, and Pivot, dreamers had been drawing up plans for rotating houses and parking garages and solariums for decades before the Florianturm was built. In all these structures, the rotation served practical purposes: patients could be moved between rooms more easily, cars could enter and exit garages in gear.
Humans had also rotated for pleasure. By the end of the nineteenth century, rotating observation towers cropped up in British coastal resorts. In 1911, The Advance magazine reported “[a] concrete pier, which is being constructed at Santa Monica, Cal., will have a genuine novelty in a revolving restaurant. The second story of the building will revolve slowly, and the people who eat there will have a constantly changing view.” A few decades later, rotating bars began to appear: the Morrison Hotel bar in Chicago, the Chez Ami in Buffalo, and, most famous among them, the Carousel Piano Bar at the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans, haunt of Tennessee Williams and birthplace of the Vieux Carré cocktail.
World’s Fairs have always been incubators for technological innovation. Alexander Graham Bell debuted the telephone at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. The Ferris Wheel first ran at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris. The electrical outlet had its premiere at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. And in 1933, Norman Bel Geddes, of Futurama fame, designed an intricate, multilevel revolving restaurant complex that would spin on a central column and afford diners sweeping views of the fairgrounds of the Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago. But it was never built.
Instead, it was the futuristic Floriansturm and Space Needle – built for a horticultural fair and a World’s Fair, respectively – that eventually joined views and dining, adding a dose of Space Age elegance along the way. Diners could now ascend high-speed elevators to luxury UFOs cropping up in major world cities, where they could sip Manhattans and dine off mood-lit white tablecloths as the lights of the city passed by like stars. Even if the view nearly always beat the food and drink.
Though it’s called a revolving restaurant, it’s not the restaurant itself that rotates. Instead, diners are seated on a (usually) doughnut-shaped turntable surrounding a stationary center housing elevators and service areas. This arrangement required new ways of serving food. Video from the early 1960s (above) shows a dress rehearsal in preparation for the opening of the restaurant atop the BT Tower in London.
As for the turntable itself, chances are it was built by Connecticut-based manufacturer Macton, the “World Leader in Restaurant Motion.” Macton has been producing turntables since the 1950s. The company got its start with a revolving stage at Jones Beach, New York, a favorite venue of Guy Lombardo’s, and since the 1960s has built over 100 revolving restaurant platforms. That’s nearly three-quarters of those in existence and includes the CN Tower in Toronto, the tallest freestanding observation tower in the Western Hemisphere, and the Stratosphere in Las Vegas, the second tallest. (Most others, including the Ryuygong Hotel in Pyongyang, are produced by Chinese company Weizhong.)
And who wouldn’t want a revolving restaurant? According to Macton’s promotional brochure, “[e]xecutives of some of the largest hotel chains have found that the unique nature of a revolving restaurant attracts 50% more business than a comparable stationary restaurant with the equivalent menu, prices, and service.”
But to everything, there is a season (turn! turn! turn!). The revolving restaurant’s popularity has waned considerably in the United States and Canada in recent decades: the last one built was the Stratosphere nearly 20 years ago, and many have stopped rotating or closed altogether. This is perhaps related to popular food culture’s increased emphasis on authenticity, creativity, and technique over opulence and experience. The idea of rotating in the sky while you eat steak and sip champagne seems kitsch now, even a bit campy – a quaintly retro vision of what a nice night on the town should entail – even if the CN Tower and the Stratosphere continue to pack them in.
But the concept has remained popular elsewhere, with revolving restaurants continuing to pop up in the Middle East and Asia, for example at the Canton Tower in Guangzhou. Will revolving restaurants make a comeback in the United States and Canada? What’s old is always new again, and, when it comes to the revolving restaurant, maybe someday we’ll see a second revolution.