Since its grand opening last August, modern Chinese restaurant iChina has captured the attention of curious South Bay locals. Located alongside more casual restaurants like Shake Shack and the Cheesecake Factory in Santa Clara’s Westfield Valley Fair mall, iChina spans two stories with its palace-like decor, including massive chandeliers, marble tables, and opulent glass walls.
Later this month, iChina will debut its extravagant virtual reality room, the VR Realm. The experience consists of a full-fledged sensory immersion and a tasting menu that comes with a hefty price tag: a minimum of $4,500 for 10 people. Though the concept may sound gimmicky, iChina is stepping into a domain that remains largely unexplored. The restaurant is one of the first in the U.S. with a virtual reality room; there are only a few other restaurant VR experiences scattered around the world, at upscale restaurants in Shanghai, Serpong in Indonesia, and Ibiza.
Eddie Lam, iChina’s executive chef, suggests the restaurant’s location in the heart of Silicon Valley made the VR room a logical — if immense — investment. “We wanted to bring this to Silicon Valley,” he says. “It made sense. The people and clientele here, they want experiences like this. It was definitely an ambitious project, but we’re excited for it to come to life.”
Silicon Valley is known as the tech capital of the world. From advanced computers to self-driving cars, technological advancements of all sorts have their roots in the South Bay, and the culture of innovation has permeated the area for decades. But rarely has this spirit of tech been adopted so directly by restaurants. Lam believes incorporating an influx of visual and auditory components to a sit-down meal sets the stage for a memorable dinner, and may be the next big trend at the intersection of food and entertainment.
Though iChina’s entire space is expansive — a whopping 9,615 square feet upstairs and 2,682 square feet downstairs — the VR room is small and intimate at just 275 square feet, with a long table and chairs in a conference-style set up. The concept of VR likely brings to mind bulky headsets, but iChina’s room requires no such gear. Instead the room uses eight projectors strategically pinned to the ceiling. High-definition scenes are then reflected onto four white leather walls and a reflective marble table, immersing diners in a continuous display that ebbs and flows. As the experience begins, the confines of the room melt away, replaced by an all-embracing environment. Each of the current 11 scenes aligns with a corresponding course.
The scenes reflect a variety of tranquil settings, including a bamboo forest, a pond, a cherry blossom garden, a mosaic wall, and a water lantern festival. Each uses the physical space to project meticulous details for diners to take in; for example, in the pond scene, koi fish swim around on the table. “For the aquatic scene, we would serve our seafood course,” Lam explains, though he’s planning to alter the menu to each client’s taste.
Not every course is conceptually paired with a scene. Instead, Lam operates with a unifying theme in mind: crafting modern renditions of Chinese food that hearken back to the dishes he enjoyed as a child. Some of the VR scenes also showcase cultural elements, and he hopes the experience immerses diners in a way that transcends food alone. There are also matching musical elements: A serene bamboo flute song plays during a display of the cherry blossom scene; a tune that’s a bit more spirited accompanies the scene with water lanterns. The aquatic scene features soothing music with the subtle audio of a whale call playing in the background.
The iChina design team paid special attention to the VR room, collaborating with specialists in China who have created various types of VR experiences in East Asia. Although there was precedent, Lam says VR dining rooms are still rare in China, and most of iChina’s elements were created from the ground up. After the design team arranged for custom-made plates and furniture to be imported from China, they used a technique called projection mapping to make the content appear as immersive as possible. With this technology, spatial data — like the dimensions of the room and placement of the furniture, plates, and diners — allow the projections to truly envelop the entire space.
Given the steep price, the VR room is clearly not intended for everyone. So, who is it for? According to Lam, they’ve been receiving ongoing inquiries since last year, mostly from upscale corporate clients. As iChina begins booking reservations, the team has been creating additional scenes, some of which can even include corporate logos.
Parag Patel, an iChina customer who works at a local tech company, hopes to book the VR room for his team’s next offsite in the Bay Area. “Many of my teammates fly in from outside of California for these offsites and are excited about experiences like this — ones that are unique to the locality of Silicon Valley and are rooted in tech,” he says. Though the pandemic has delayed company gatherings, Parag feels confident his team would be open to paying a premium for the interactive experience.
iChina does have other options for group dining that come without the VR tech and the steep cost, and the restaurant hopes to thread the needle between tradition and innovation. Even with the VR experience and many design flourishes, Lam insists iChina is far less showy than you might think; just consider its name. Contrary to popular belief, the “i” in iChina is not a nod to a well-known smartphone. Instead, it’s meant to highlight the Chinese identity and self, while also pointing to the collective Chinese American experience. “In short, it stands for the love one has for China,” Lam says. “We wanted to construct a place of pride for the Chinese American community and something they could truly identify with. For us, that’s what it’s always been about.”