The Crayola Café is no fun at all.

Stick It! 

The Crayola Café is no fun at all.

My life as a food critic began in kindergarten. Not that I realized it at the time, of course. I was a relatively unfussy eater as a toddler, but even I drew the line at eating crayons. Not so for several of my classmates at Public School No. 86, who gnawed on those thick school-issue Crayolas as if they were licorice sticks. "They're really good!" confided my neighbor Billy, flashing a waxy blue smile. Billy also ate that sweet-smelling white paste we used for gluing colored paper together. It didn't seem to have any ill effects on his health (though he did grow up to be an attorney), and no one, including our hatchet-faced teacher, seemed to think his snacking habits were odd.

I did, however, and gave him the evil eye every time he shoved a freshly sharpened crayon into his mouth. I asked my mother why some kids preferred eating crayons to coloring with them. My mother -- as charmingly clueless as the 1950s housewife played by Julianne Moore in Far From Heaven -- giggled and replied, "Some kids don't like to eat fish sticks, either." It took me years to figure out what she meant. Fish sticks or blue crayons -- it's simply a matter of personal taste.

Learning the art of discriminating eating should start early, which is why a restaurant like the three-year-old Crayola Cafe has a lot of potential. The menu isn't dumbed down like most kid-friendly restaurants', nor is it so coyly sophisticated as to turn off a youthful palate. The place is bright and colorful, and the service is friendly. So why did I cringe every time I went there? After three meals at the Crayola Cafe, I've decided that although the place has all the right colors and talent to be something more special than a lowbrow diner, it's missing that creative spark that might make it extraordinary. There's a certain magic associated with the Hallmark-owned brand name Crayola: Just ask anyone who remembers flipping back the cardboard lid of his or her first orange-and-green box containing the 64-color assortment. Those perfectly formed little wands of vibrantly colored wax glowed like jewels. Magic!

Whereas the Walt Disney Company is masterfully shrewd when capitalizing on its product name, Hallmark and its Culinary Concept unit fumble with their hometown Crayola Cafe. The food, overseen by chef Kelli Billingsley, isn't artful in any fashion. In fact, it's numbingly dull. The sandwiches are no more interesting than those found at any corporate casual chain, and the main dishes couldn't be more bland or served with less flair. Yes, there are a few gimmicky choices aimed at kids who prefer playing with their food to eating it, including a "Make-Your-Own Peanut Butter" option served with crustless toast rounds, apple slices, bananas and caramel popcorn. If it sounds more like a game than a meal, it is.

The place could use a little spiffing up visually as well. The location, on the second-level terrace of Crown Center, overlooking the building's indoor atrium, doesn't lend itself to much in the way of colorful décor. There are no interior walls, so the only decorative elements -- aside from the paper placemats -- are architectural ones (a massive ring of lights floating above the "bar," for instance). Oh, there are oversized Crayola props, too, but they're scrawled with more graffiti than any New York subway car.

The artistically inclined can scribble on the placemats with a selection of Binney & Smith's newest colors (changed every Sunday, for those diners who prefer virgin wax), placed at each table along with a "children's menu" that's so tiny I didn't even notice it until my final visit. By then, we'd already ordered. I've seen postcards bigger than this laminated sheet, and the microscopic print was more difficult to read than the etchings on the Rosetta stone.

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