Mad Rex

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After 15 minutes of sitting in a five-person booth with just one other person at Philadelphia’s new post-apocalyptic themed restaurant, I started wondering after not being approached by a server: Maybe this place actually is staffed by the undead.

Honestly, I’m still unsure.

Earlier this week I grabbed a brave friend and had dinner at Mad Rex, a 3-week-old spot near the Fillmore in Fishtown that’s billed on its own website as “a meeting place, dining haven, and watering hole for revelers from all walks of life, where survivors indulge in food and drink at an urban outpost.”

And, most importantly, it’s described as “an environment where patrons are encouraged to create their own ‘interactive rites’ through virtual reality.” As a VR virgin, this was relevant to my interests.

But instead of feeling like I had a unique experience inside a post-apocalyptic story, I left Mad Rex Tuesday night feeling like I was at an overpriced chain restaurant with a few cool decorations, a confusing “VR lounge,” decent food (!) and some of the strangest service I’ve ever received.

Some of the decor inside Mad Rex. This is possibly a zombie hunting uniform. Credit: Anna Orso/Billy Penn

After arriving and being seated in a booth that was much too large despite the fact that not even half the tables in the restaurant were full, my friend and I waited for about 15 minutes before we mentioned to a woman who walked by that we hadn’t been spoken to since arriving.

The same woman came back a few moments later. Apparently she would be our waitress. OK. Our new waitress briefly apologized for the delay and blamed it on the hostesses, who allegedly didn’t notify anyone that we’d been seated. A little TMI for my taste, but whatever.

She explained the menu — highlighting the “hot rocks” in which patrons cook their own meats — and said everything was made from scratch. Then she proceeded to tell us that meant our food might take longer than we’re used to because it’s… made from scratch?

The Mad Rex menu Credit: Anna Orso/Billy Penn

Here’s the thing. It’s nice she told me the food was made from scratch, considering the table we were sitting at felt a little bit like being in a Smokey Bones, but if I’m paying $25 for a pork chop, I’m going to assume it’s not coming mass-produced out of a bag. There is exactly one entree in the world I would pay that much money for and know it’s probably NOT made from scratch. Three words: Tour. Of. Italy.


Our waitress went on to explain the “VR lounge,” and said patrons can pay for an “IV bag” in order to drink while in the VR experience, but she provided no details on what that was, how it worked or how it fit into our dinner experience. She mentioned only that it costs $1 a minute.

We placed an order for two cocktails, and she had no idea what we were talking about because apparently “they changed the names” for the drinks. That checked out, because later when another man delivered our cocktails, he placed them on the table calling them something very different than what we’d actually ordered.

My cocktail, apparently now named the Road Warrior, was quite good. Made with tequila, citrus and something a little spicy, I’ve really never tasted anything like it before. My friend’s cocktail, the Vigilante, was a tad bit of gin, some pink stuff and almost all ice. I am convinced there was very little alcohol in either beverage.

Then came our $12 appetizer: A flatbread with sliced pear, brie and caramelized onions. It was fine. It was a little dry, and there was no sauce or really anything else to it. Not even a garnish.

Pear, brie and caramelized onion flatbread. Credit: Anna Orso/Billy Penn

When our waitress came back to the table and asked if we’d gotten our appetizer yet — while she was holding our empty appetizer plate — we asked her to please tell us more about the VR lounge. How did it work? When could we go?

She told us we could check it out whenever we want, including right that moment while we were waiting for our entrees to come out, so long as we didn’t “leave” her “hanging.” (Alright, I mean I wasn’t going to just come here for a free cocktail and a li’l flatbread, but now that you say it…)

We got up to walk over to the ~VR LoUnGe~ and a man immediately tried to clear our table and take away our cocktails. We told him to please not do that. This lack of communication between the maybe-zombie staffers was a theme.

At one point, another employee asked my friend if she was done with her SILVERWARE before she got her entree. At another, managers and servers were directly behind me speaking to each other about a $2 tip one of the waitresses got (which totally sucks and I sympathize).

No one seemed to know what they were doing.

Before we got our entrees, we checked out some of the decor. While the restaurant is pretty well-lit — brighter than I’d expected for the post-apocalypse — there are a few nice touches, including mannequin-like figures dressed in what felt like zombie-hunting gear and drink glasses with bullets going through them.

Bullet glass filled with beer that maybe tastes like a cigarette. Credit: Anna Orso/Billy Penn

Then we made it into the VR area. The handful of folks staffing it said the “experiences” would cost us $2 a minute (twice what our uninformed waitress told us), so we did an introductory video, which was about three minutes long and was complimentary for people who say they’ve never done VR before.

It was semi-cool. They outfitted me with a headset and some headphones, and I was whisked away to be inside an Asian hut with a family whom I did not know, floating in outer space and on the basketball court a little too close to LeBron. It was interesting. But not worth $2 a minute. And there was no apocalypse.

We got back to the table after the experience and ordered two beers. We went with the Mad Rex IPA, which our waitress claimed was brewed in-house, but I believed nothing she said at that point. My friend said that the IPA, which definitely had a strange smoky flavor, “Kinda tastes like a cigarette.”

Our entrees arrived. I ordered New York strip off the hot rock menu, and it came out with the stone, a piece of steak, three sauces, butter, lemon and a spice rub. I was told to squeeze the lemon onto the rock, sizzle half the butter as well, and then cook each piece of steak on each side for no less than five seconds and no more than 15.

Me cooking my own steak in a restaurant. Credit: Anna Orso/Billy Penn

It was pretty good. But like, I cooked it exactly how I wanted it. How could it not be? My recommendation with the hot rock is this: Next time you want to spend $33 and eat a steak, go somewhere where they cook it for you. This was too much work.

My friend ordered the pork chop, which was served with a side of rice and beans. This dish was by far the best part of the meal. The sauce was smoky (in a good way, not like the gross IPA), and there was a lot of it. The rice and beans on the side were the hidden gem, and a really solid side dish.

After wrapping up, our waitress brought our check, drew a heart on top and circled “20%” in the portion of the check that suggested a tip. Interesting strategy.

Forward, are we? Credit: Anna Orso/Billy Penn

After paying and debriefing, we came to the conclusion that this restaurant was nowhere near as cool as we’d expected based on the hype. If you’re super into VR, maybe this would be an interesting spot for you to check out. But other than that, the place was a damn mess. The zombie stuff was a bad schtick. To a degree, schtick can be excused if food and service is excellent.

Unfortunately for Mad Rex, the food was just decent. And the service was God awful. What this experience taught me is that if there’s a zombie apocalypse, we’re all going to get shitty service.

But I’m still going to tip 20 percent. Because I’m not a zombie yet.

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.