This New York cafe is serving up the Barbie experience – and it’s a life in plastic
The Malibu Barbie cafe opens this month ahead of Greta Gerwig’s highly-anticipated summer film release – but is it worth the visit?
New York’s next influencer mecca comes in pink. The Malibu Barbie Cafe, a joint partnership between travel itinerary platform Bucket Listers and toy company Mattel, opened this month in New York just as legions of Barbie fans are preparing for Greta Gerwig’s long-awaited movie about the iconic childhood toy, which will hit cinemas on July 21.
A combination of a restaurant, photo backdrop, and playground, the venue, located in lower Manhattan’s seaport neighbourhood, features a food menu created by Master Chef semifinalist Becky Brown and such hands-on elements as a real sandbox and a lifeguard chair. The decor is retro beach-themed in homage to Malibu Barbie’s 1971 debut.
“We wanted to make sure it’s not just pretty photos; we wanted it to be interactive,” says Julie Freeland, senior director of location-based entertainment for Mattel.
The flat entry fee can range from $22 (€20.50) to $30 (€28) for kids and $39 (€36) to $49 (€46) for adults, according to peak hours and days. The price for food includes an entree and side item; cocktails for adults can be added to the bill for an additional $16 (€15) to $18 (€17) apiece. Dessert is not included.
To that end, the company has partnered with Bucket Listers, known for such successful pop-ups as last year’s Golden Girls Kitchen in the same space at 19 Fulton St. A location will open in Chicago on June 7; both spots will run until Sept. 15, meant to attract both families and adults, explains Andy Lederman, founder of Bucket Listers.
The cafe is the kind of place that could easily lure nostalgic tourists along the lines of the Friends Experience or the Van Gogh Exhibition. It might well attract New Yorkers who sharply appreciate camp.
I visit for an early look, dressed all in black, because how else would a New Yorker enter Malibu? Parents chase their children around, taking photos in a life-sized “Barbie box” inviting visitors to pretend they’re a doll on a supermarket shelf, surrounded by such plastic ‘toys’ as roller skates, a surfboard, and beach towels.
This aspect reminds me of another New York doll-themed institution: American Girl New York City, which also offers a cafe and the chance to pretend you’re in a make-believe world. There, the focus is clearly on kids, with adults more an afterthought.
At the Barbie Cafe, in contrast, it’s all about a very specific type of adult. Based on the night I go, the target demographic appears to be females in their early 20s.
On this ‘VIP Preview Party’ night, the lines are long: People queue for photos in front of a fake beach wave; there’s a separate wait for a photo-op on a hot-pink bench. Even the staircase is designed for photos, with such lines as ‘Shine On’ and ‘Make Waves’ painted on multicoloured steps. On trying to escape into the bathroom, you’re met with a giant sticker on the mirror urging you to ‘Feel the Kenergy’.
“Everything you do in any space, you have to think about how it’s geared toward content creators,” Lederman says. That is, TikTok and Instagram influencers.
The intention is for kids to visit in the early hours — the cafe opens at 10 a.m. and closes around 9:45 p.m. — with adults populating the dinner hours, according to Lederman. It’s distinctly the kind of place where you might come for the atmosphere and eat as an afterthought. The culinary vibe is more like that of a chain restaurant in Times Square than a brunch spot or fast-casual dinner option.
The drinks — strong, sugary, and of course, pink — look the part. With such names as Think Pink Margarita, Beach Mojito and Groovy Arnold Palmer, they’re nothing groundbreaking, though certainly sweet enough to make you regret imbibing them the next morning should you have a few.
Brown’s menu treads between kiddie fare and trendier adult dishes like a curry spiced cauliflower bowl and sourdough avocado toast, which encapsulates everything you need to know about the intended clientele. Such classic American staples as a ‘Beach Burger’ and ‘Live Your Dream Grilled Cheese’ offer a hearty antidote to the pink (of course) chia pudding parfait (€13) and beet hummus (€13). I will say that the ingredients are clearly fresh.
Dessert is, naturally, where the cafe shines. There are cake pops (€11 for two), raspberry mousse (€11), macarons (€8 for six) and a make-your-own sundae (€7.50). And strawberry and dreamsicle soda floats (€7.50). I can happily say I’m learning something new about myself — namely that I can countenance a shimmery finish on ice cream much more easily than on hummus.
The most striking aspect of the pop-up is its earnestness. While it’s impeccably decorated and accessorised, any space in 2023 that uncritically celebrates an impossibly thin, tall, White archetype — particularly in a city as culturally and ethnically diverse as New York — repeatedly raises questions of why now and why here? I personally can’t find an answer.
A few Barbies are on display with darker skin tones, but the majority of dolls are White, and the onslaught of old-school pink ends up feeling like a paean to gender norms.
Gerwig’s upcoming movie, which stars Margot Robbie as Barbie and Ryan Gosling as Ken, has made an effort to boost inclusivity, with Issa Rae and Hari Nef playing versions of Barbie and Simu Liu and Ncuti Gatwa portraying various incarnations of Ken.
Gerwig has said in interviews that she’s playing to upend the traditional Barbie stereotype, including that bringing Barbie to the big screen was “something that was exciting because it was terrifying..I think that was a big part of it – like: ‘Oh, no, ‘Barbie,’” she said.
The Barbie brand itself also gotten on board with the times, rolling out new dolls with a variety of skin tones and more realistic body types. All these Barbie-centric pivots to inclusivity have not, it seems, trickled down to the Malibu Barbie Cafe. Instead, the space honours and celebrates a vintage version of Barbie, with the same thin body image displayed in the sample dolls and no explicit recognition of how problematic the old-school paradigm was. Nuance isn’t a focus here.
So on one level, the cafe is cute. On another, I keep wondering what kind of parents would enthusiastically bring their kids to a temple of White, body-dysmorphic beauty that charges €37 for toast. Similarly, I can’t imagine legions of adults who would consider such a venue “fun.”
New York is a big place, so I’m sure this one will find its audience. “Barbiecore” is certainly trending on social media. But as I leave the cafe, my hangover somehow already in full force (thanks, Think Pink Margarita), I grow certain that it very distinctly is not for me.