Success is a struggle for some restaurants. But not the California Pizza Kitchen. Since it opened in Beverly Hills in March, the place has been jammed. A lease has just been signed for a clone that will open in the Beverly Center next spring. And more will follow at the rate of three or four a year. At least that is the plan of owners Rick Rosenfield and Larry Flax, law partners with an office next door to the restaurant.
Their concept is not original. A high-tech setting, a high noise level, an open kitchen where the pizzas are paddled in and out of wood-fired ovens by exuberant young cooks have been seen elsewhere. True, a mesquite grill is missing. But that will be added to the Beverly Center branch.
Set trendiness aside and you find the restaurant works for practical reasons such as cheerful service, good food and non-threatening prices. A computer system that records each order indicates that lunch and dinner bills average $8 and $11 per customer, including beverage. Servings are not nouvelle- skimpy. One of the best salads, a romaine and watercress mixture with Gorgonzola cheese and walnuts, could easily serve four, for $4.75.
Unconventional to Bizarre
The pizzas have toppings that some might call unconventional and others bizarre. There is, for example, a cheeseless Sichuan shrimp pizza dotted with black Oriental mushrooms and black sesame seeds. The seasonings are tame, making it Sichuan in name only. A Peking duck pizza is also lightly named. The crisp skin that identifies the real thing is lacking. Instead, there are shreds of duck breast atop a pizza shell that has been smeared with hoisin sauce, then sprinkled with cheese.
According to the computer, a barbecued chicken pizza is the top seller, and has been daily since the restaurant opened. The barbecue sauce is one of those sweet, slightly spicy mixtures and is not made at the restaurant. Next is a tomato, garlic and basil pizza, which possibly sells well because, at $5.50, it is the cheapest pizza. Third is a conventional mushroom, pepperoni, pork sausage and tomato sauce combination.
Although they didn't register with the big sellers, I liked a goat cheese and bacon pizza and a Cajun pizza with spicy Louisiana style sausage, okra and sweet peppers.
A Starchy Place
The California Pizza Kitchen is a starchy place, dealing in pastas as well as pizzas. The most popular pastas are spaghettini with fresh tomatoes, basil and garlic (another $5.50 special), spinach fettuccine with chicken in a tequila lime sauce (this one is very rich) and fettuccine topped with grilled chicken breast and a tomato and sage sauce.
The restaurant recently introduced weekend brunch, with such variations on ordinary breakfast fare as French toasted calzone, stuffed with pears, almonds and brie. The same chili that tops a pizza for lunch or dinner comes in an omelet in the morning. Devised by Gary Beauregard, restaurant manager, the chili has a meaty base of hand-cubed chuck roast and ham hock stock. "It's no schlock chili," Beauregard asserted.
The Pizza Kitchen is notable for more than food. Its small wine list includes a great buy--the Jordan Vineyard and Winery's 1981 Cabernet Sauvignon for $20. This is only $3 more than the retail price, including tax, quoted by the winery. "Basically, they're just charging corkage," said a Jordan spokesperson. Good wines like this could stand a better container than the Pizza Kitchen's chunky, straight-sided glasses. They suit the look of the restaurant, but not the needs of wine lovers.
California Pizza Kitchen, 207 S. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills (213) 272-7878. Open Monday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to midnight. Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Brunch Saturday and Sunday. No reservations. Takes MasterCard, Visa . Two hours free parking in city lot across the street.