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Diners digest the new menu facts

Visits to a few L.A.-area restaurants reveal how customers really feel about the nutritional info law

February 22, 2010|Jeannine Stein

At a Starbucks on Melrose Avenue, Vince Weir was just polishing off a multi-grain bagel with cream cheese and an iced coffee. The L.A. actor and bartender was vaguely aware of the menu labeling legislation and knew Starbucks provided nutritional information in brochures stacked near the cream and sugar, although he'd never checked them out.

He did think providing the information was a good idea — in brochure form, anyway. On menus? Not so much. "If I'm about to have a steak, I don't want to see that it has 800 calories. No, I don't like that."

Where we found the information: brochures placed near the sugar and cream.

The good, bad and ugly: Starbucks limits calories-per-item to 500, but best bets are items like the spinach, egg white and feta wrap at 280 calories and the blueberry oat bar at 250 calories. Things start to add up when you add a beverage: A venti vanilla latte with 2% milk is 320 calories, and a grande hot chocolate is 300 calories. Breakfast becomes a hefty deal when you start with a blueberry scone at 460 calories or a slice of banana bread at 490 calories.

At the Cheesecake Factory in Sherman Oaks, friends Jackie Wise and Roberto Izarraras were sitting down to dinner. She had just perused the nutritional information, which was bound into a little book and placed on the table along with the menus. And she wasn't too happy about it.

"I was shocked," Wise said. "The calories you can kind of figure, but the sodium was unbelievable. I come here rarely, and it's usually to treat myself, but when I did look at some of the stuff — like the pizzas — if I were inclined to get one, I wouldn't, because of the calories and sodium." On this occasion, she ordered a grilled chicken tostada salad at 1,140 calories and 2,151 milligrams of sodium.

Izarraras' go-to favorite is the crispy chicken Costoletta, at 1,238 calories. Being on a diet steered him to something he hoped was better because it wasn't breaded — the teriyaki chicken. A good move? Maybe not. It had a fraction of the fat of the other dish — but the fact book clocked it in at 1,403 calories. Both diners said they take some part of their meal home with them. With the new info, "I'm more inclined not to go for those dishes every time, perhaps," Izarraras said. "Certainly for the cheesecake, I'd think twice."

Where we found the information: Before you even ask, the waiter plops it down on the table with the menus.

The good, bad and ugly: The Cheesecake Factory isn't known for being kind to diets, but there are a few things that are tolerable. The "Weight Management" dishes are lower in fat and calories than most menu offerings — 598 for grilled chicken. Some lunch dishes aren't bad, such as the grilled salmon at 484 calories. The chain's new "small plates and snacks" menu may have toned-down portions, but calories are still high on items such as onion rings. Most regular entrees are more than 1,000 calories and loaded with salt, and as for the cheesecake — if you have to ask, you can't afford the calories.

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