I know what you're thinking: Why in the hell would he go back to that kid-friendly dinette after giving the colorful but crummy joint a negative review two years ago ("Stick It!," January 30, 2003)? That thought did cross my mind as I was practically begging friends to dine with me there -- my two teenage goddaughters rolled their eyes and laughed in my face when I asked them. But I had my reasons. When I last ate there, the restaurant was still operated by Hallmark's former restaurant division, Culinary Concepts. This past March, Hallmark turned those duties over to the Hyatt's food and beverage department.
Since I like two of the Hyatt's signature restaurants, Skies and the Peppercorn Duck Club, I had a vision that this well-oiled operation might make some sense out of the Crayola Café, which tried to serve imaginative food in a creative setting but always missed the mark. Maybe, I thought, the Hyatt would attempt to be a little less artistic and focus more on taste and value -- you know, like a really fun diner. But that was just a fantasy, like Santa Claus.
Oh, the place isn't a total nightmare, particularly during the holidays, when Crown Center is spiffed up for the season. I don't always think it's a wonderful life, but even my cynicism eased at the site of the sparkly Mayor's Christmas Tree, visible from the second-level patio, where the Crayola Café is perched. From there I also could see the immense holiday wreath and many pretty garlands decorating Crown Center's front glass wall.
Why, my mood was getting downright merry! I even had a brief encounter with the Ghost of My Own Christmas Past as I listened to various grade school choirs sing carols down on the lower level. It reminded me of my own parochial school holiday pageants. The memory almost brought a tear to my eye.
But was it really memories evoking those tears? Or was it a thick onion ring with watery ranch dressing? Or was it the tortilla chips served with the lukewarm, soupy "artichoke spinach dip," which actually might have benefited from the texture of a few melted crayons?
I was dining that night with my friends Bob and Jennifer, who immediately noticed that even though Crown Center was crawling with kids, only a handful of them were actually dining with their folks in the stubbornly uncheery Crayola Café. Jennifer looked down at the single-page "For Big Kids" menu and noted that the collection of appetizers, salads and sandwiches was like most bar menus in town, if less interesting.
"But you can't get a drink here," I said, flagging down a waitress, "can you?"
"Oh, yes," the server said. "We have beer and wine and specialty drinks." But she didn't offer to explain what a Crayola Café specialty drink might be, and frankly, we didn't care. The place was already so weird, who needed liquor? We were debating which entrées sounded edible when Bob practically jumped out of his seat. "Did you hear that?" he whispered. "The choir downstairs stopped singing Christmas carols and is singing 'The Rose.' You know, from the Bette Midler movie!"
Quietly, we listened to kids warble the bittersweet ballad from 1979. It did seem a strange musical choice but preferable to yet another rendition of Handel's Messiah. Our waiter, a strapping blond youth named Carey, wondered why we were giggling. Bob said, "Don't you recognize this song?"