The Weird History of the Hard Rock Cafe

These days, the Hard Rock Cafe seems about as hard and/or rock as Ed Sheeran.
The Weird History of the Hard Rock Cafe

These days, the Hard Rock Cafe seems about as hard and/or rock as Ed Sheeran, but believe it or not, it really was once the hardest rocking joint in town. It’s been a real rock-and-rollercoaster ride from a place where Eric Clapton would throw a fit if he couldn’t find a seat to one where only sunburnt tourists do the same.

An American (or Two) in London

Hard Rock Cafe London

(Eluveitie/Wikimedia Commons)

In 1971, two rich kids from the United States, Isaac Tigrett and Peter Morton, were rich kidding around London in search of a good burger when they realized the American creation hadn’t jumped across the pond. They decided to build a whole restaurant rather than endure British food, and in fact, the building’s owner was so certain locals wouldn’t trust beef that had never been boiled that he only allowed them an initial six-month lease.

Steak and Duck Money

Morton's Steakhouse

(Fastily/Wikimedia Commons)

How did two twentysomething tourists have the wherewithal to open a restaurant? They both happened to be heirs to American empires. Peter Morton’s dad was the founder of the Morton’s Steakhouse chain, while Isaac Tigrett’s dad made his fortune in more esoteric goods, like toy ducks that bob back and forth in the water and the first mesh playpens. Had it not been for those stupid plastic ducks, your trip to Universal CityWalk just wouldn’t be the same.

It’s Named After a Doors Album Cover

Morrison Hotel back cover

(Elektra Records)

Morton and Tigrett wanted to capture rock and roll diner culture for London, so keeping with the theme, they took the name “Hard Rock Cafe” from the business where the back cover of the Doors album Morrison Hotel was shot. Technically, Hard Rock Cafe is also the name of the album, which has a different name for each side of the record because no one was telling Jim Morrison “no” at that point.

The Logo Was Designed By a Rock Art Legend

Alan Aldridge

(Hans Peters/Anefo/Wikimedia Commons)

Tigrett had musical connections through his father, which is probably how he hooked up with Alan Aldridge, who had designed album covers for the Beatles and the Who and looked like Norman Reedus in a Brett Michaels wig. Aldridge designed the logo that soon emblazoned every vacation dad torso with instructions from Tigrett to do something like the Chevrolet hood ornament. He probably knocked it out in an hour and just went back to generally crushing it.

Don’t Sit in Eric Clapton’s Spot

Clapton's guitar at Hard Rock Cafe

(Stefano Brivio/Wikimedia Commons)

The Hard Rock Cafe founders didn’t intend it to become a museum with a menu. It all started after Eric Clapton threw a fit about people sitting in “his” seat. The restaurant actually did become popular with British musicians because they’re easily lured by guitar-shaped decor and the smells of non-wilted vegetables, so Clapton asked them to hang his own guitar up on the wall above his preferred seat. It’s how they mark their territory. 

An Ego Snowball

Speaking of pissing contests, word soon got around about Clapton’s special place card, which especially offended Pete Townshend, who had zero concern about saving his seat until that exact moment but suddenly cared very much that Clapton had something he didn’t and handed over his own guitar. He wasn’t even there. He sent it in with a note that said, “Mine’s just as good as his! Love, Pete.” Soon, it became a status symbol to have your guitar hanging up in the Hard Rock Cafe, born of the time-honored tradition of guitarists attempting to prove that Clapton ain’t shit.

Breaking Record Records

The cafe wasted no time leaning into the music memorabilia business, now boasting the largest private collection in the world of about 86,000 pieces, ranging from Elvis’s Rolls Royce to paperwork from an accident Bruce Springsteen got into in the ‘70s. They get the stuff from the artists themselves, auctions, and other collectors, although those last ones can get a little weird. “We stay away from things like hair and teeth,” said the director of memorabilia, “the really odd pieces that people would need to get a DNA test for” and probably police reports.

Their First Concert Was Wings

Paul McCartney and Wings

(Jim Summaria/Wikimedia Commons)

It’s now known as a performance venue, but nobody thought to host live music until Paul McCartney asked. He played a surprise show to warm up his new band, Wings, before their 1973 tour, meaning that unsuspecting customers who had simply “popped in for a burger” found themselves “being personally entertained by one of the most famous musicians on the planet.”

Linda McCartney Created Their Veggie Burger

McCartney and his wife, Linda, were both regulars and ardent vegetarians, two facts that seem incompatible for a burger restaurant, which just proves how important it was to be seen there. Indeed, it was reported that “they would always order a salad” until one day, Linda McCartney suggested adding veggie burgers to the menu and even let them use her own personal recipe. She was that sick of eating salads.

The Hard Rock Waitress Mascot

To staff the first Hard Rock Cafe, the founders openly sought “older women” in their late thirties to fifties for that authentic diner sass, and they got plenty of it with Rita Gilligan, who went on to become the company’s brand ambassador. She’s written a book about her 50 years with the company and even been honored by the Queen as a Member of the Order of the British Empire.

Fame-Adjacent Employees

Victoria Beckham

(LGEPR/Wikimedia Commons)

Eventually, the Hard Rock Cafe became the workplace of choice for lesser relatives of celebrities, including the children of Yuul Brynner, Andre Previn, and Ringo Starr. Posh Spice applied for a job pre-Spice Girls, but according to Gilligan, she was too quiet.

They Had a (Disastrous) Theme Park

Hard Rock Park

(SkierGirl77/Wikimedia Commons)

The Hard Rock Cafe has long since expanded into the hotel and casino industry, catering to the daddest of travelers, and in 2008, they tried to get the whole family in on the fun with Hard Rock Park. The project was an immediate financial disaster because it turns out nobody in Myrtle Beach wants to go to a rock and roll theme park.

They Own the Berlin Wall

Berlin Wall

(Neptuul/Wikimedia Commons)

The Hard Rock Cafe’s memorabilia collection isn’t limited to music history. Tucked away behind the restaurant at Universal CityWalk Orlando is a section of the freaking Berlin Wall, one of only a few dozen in the world. It’s on the way to the former Blue Man Group theater, clearly symbolizing the evils of the West.

It’s Owned By an Indigenous Tribe

In 2006, the Seminole Tribe of Florida bought the entire Hard Rock International empire, which makes sense for a business so steeped in Americana. The tribe paid nearly a billion dollars for it, making it the largest purchase ever made by an American indigenous tribe. As explained by a Seminole council representative, “We’re going to buy Manhattan back, one burger at a time.”

Keep On Rockin’ In … Putin’s World?

Hard Rock Cafe Moscow

(CaritasUbi/Wikimedia Commons)

That doesn’t mean the brand has been freed from all problematic associations. In 2022, they came under fire when it was reported that two Hard Rock Cafe locations in Russia were still operating during the Ukraine invasion, although representatives explained the restaurants are owned by independent franchisees and the company intended to “donate all profits from the two franchise locations in Russia to humanitarian causes in Ukraine.” Yes, headline writers made “rock and a hard place” jokes.

Top image: Talles Alves/Unsplash


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