Under the arches of piazza della Repubblica, Hard Rock Café Florence has proven to be a successful way to breathe new life into the former cinema as a food-centric entertainment venue for the whole family.
On stepping into the stupendously air-conditioned monolith, prospective diners cannot help but gawp at the cavernous beauty of the building, part of which remains true to Giacomo Roster’s design (the man behind the breathtaking Tepidarium along via Bolognese). While people remember its recent past as the grandiose Cinema Gambrinus, the edifice’s original function as a restaurant replete with a billiard hall and a winter garden is often overlooked. Today we can still marvel at Vincenzo Rosignoli and Alberto Michele’s sumptuous adornments, such as the glittering aedicule at the top of the roped-off steps up to the gallery.
In what Mayor Nardella refers to as “the world’s smallest global city”, tracking down a decent burger as a change from bistecca was a challenge when Hard Rock Cafe fittingly opened in Florence on the Fourth of July in 2011. The options are more numerous nowadays (Reburger in the Oltrarno, Alex Burger near piazza San Jacopino and Drogheria off piazza Sant’Ambrogio, to name a trio), but HRC remains the most central.
Loath to rest on its laurels for the company’s 50th anniversary last June, soccer superstar Lionel Messi was announced as brand ambassador. Now when the ravenous descend on via del Brunelleschi, they are faced with the seven-time Golden Ball winner’s face every which way. While it strikes a strange chord, the deeply commercial move certainly isn’t putting people off. On a Friday lunchtime, HRC Florence is more than half full, with international families having fun in front of the stage complete with ready-to-play drums, couples tucking into wings and nachos in the side booths and even solo travellers grabbing a burger at the bar. The service is warm and welcoming, US-style. I’m nestled in a booth next to Hollywood Mac’s Stevie Nicks’s platform heels and Jennifer Batten’s “custom maple washburn”, which she played on Michael Jackson’s 1997 ‘History’ tour. Waiting for the New Messi Chicken Sandwich, which I’ve been invited to try as press, my foot inadvertently taps to the beat of the blasting music and I cannot help but grin on observing a proud dad taking a photo of his son perched on the silver throne beside the entrance. Hard Rock Cafe is a happy place.
First comes a refreshing lemonade “muddied” with strawberries and basil, a much-needed change to the litres of water consumed during the Cerberus/Charon summer. Then the chicken burger is served with a smile. It’s substantial (as it should be for 18.95 euro) with the crispiest of crumbs, a doughy artisan bun, tomato, rocket and a moreish herb aioli, into which I can’t stop dipping the generous side of seasoned fries. The burger comes with a side of augmented reality: scan the QR code and savour a video of Messi, take a quiz about the footballer’s career and more.
Who knows if Futurists like Dino Campana and Ardengo Soffici, former habitees of this building back in their day, would have tucked into the American classics now served by the famous chain that started out in London in 1971. Now boasting more than 250 venues in over 70 countries, there’s no denying that Hard Rock Cafe remains ahead of its time and provides that reassuring meal experience to travellers thousands of miles from home.