Several acquaintances with more refined tastes told me later that they really liked the two-month-old addition to the Country Club Plaza, too. It's inexpensive, they said, and the service is attentive, and the food tastes good. "It's not glamorous," they cautioned. "It's kind of like, you know, an upscale diner."
An upscale diner? Is that an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp or a healthy tan? Anyway, I was game to try the place, and I've now dined there on three occasions. And I've found the glowing reports about the restaurant to be highly exaggerated. It does, indeed, have a dinerlike atmosphere. The napkins are paper, the tables uncloaked. The music is awful, and the service inconsistent. That said, I do understand the restaurant's enormous early popularity. By current Plaza standards, the dinner prices are downright cheap, and the staff couldn't be friendlier.
But some integral ingredient is missing from the place, something special that would lift the Los Angeles-based chain pizzeria out of the ordinary. It took me a long time to put my finger on what it was, exactly. When I did, I was reminded of a story from my past, when I worked at a restaurant with a waitress who had endured so many bad relationships that she finally went to a professional matchmaker for help. She was set up on a blind date with a man described to her as "flawlessly handsome and sweet as an angel." My friend was intrigued but wary.
"There's always a flaw," she told me after her first -- and last -- date with him. "And I saw it right away, even though he was a very handsome gentleman. He was wearing a hairpiece! And it wasn't even a good hairpiece. I kept trying not to stare at it, until he noticed something was wrong and said, 'I see you've guessed my secret.' And I got tongue-tied and said, 'Oh no, I don't know what you mean.' And he looked at me and said, 'Admit it -- you can tell I have a glass eye.' It was all downhill from there."
I had the same reaction to the California Pizza Kitchen; my experiences started with such promise but went quickly downhill. I wasn't looking for flaws, but they were easy to find at a restaurant that seemed to be offering a more elegant kind of pizza, giving a cosmopolitan gloss to a rustic dish with origins as humble Neapolitan bread. But beauty is only skin-deep, and the sophistication here is phony; this restaurant has more in common with a Denny's than with, say, Il Trullo. It is good-looking, though. The tabletops are shiny, and the blond woodwork and stainless-steel touches are dramatic, in a hard-edged, corporate style. The artwork, if you can call it that -- take-out pizza boxes painted like canvases and framed in Plexiglas boxes -- have a sly touch of whimsy but look as prefabricated as the menu, an International House of Pizza assortment, representing a United Nations' worth of cultures. Do you like Indian food? There's a pizza with tandoori chicken! Are you a Mexican food fan? The tostada pizza boasts black beans, salsa, ranch dressing and tortilla strips. Ole!