I have either driven or walked by dozens of California Pizza Kitchen (also known as "CPK" by its legions of fans) restaurants over the past decade plus, but I have never gone into one before I had dinner at the one at the Mirage in Las Vegas during the Consumer Electronics Show. We had been setting up booths and suites during the course of the day before the show started and we decided to grab something to eat before we called it a night. We decided to head down to the California Pizza Kitchen because we knew it would be quick and they'd probably be able to get 10 people in pretty easily.
Larry Flax and Rick Rosenfield were Los Angeles-based attorneys who frequently dined at the famed Spago restaurant in Beverly Hills in the early 80's. Chef Wolfgang Puck was serving wood-fired pizzas with interesting toppings such as smoked salmon, duck sausage and goat cheese. Flax and Rosenfield saw an opportunity to open their own restaurant that served their own style of wood-fired pizzas topped with unique, fresh and healthy ingredients. They opened their first California Pizza Kitchen in Beverly Hills in 1985 and it was an immediate hit. The first wood-fired oven they used came from Italy and the internal temperature of the oven would hit 800 degrees (F). Pizzas would be done in less than five minutes. This allowed for the pizza and toppings to sear together offering a more healthy alternative to regular oven baked pizzas.
The second California Pizza Kitchen opened at The Mirage in 1989, a franchise owned by then Mirage owner Steve Wynn. It was an immediate hit as first year revenues were over $5 million dollars. More California Pizza Kitchens opened across the nation and in 1992 Flax and Rosenfield sold 50 percent of the assets of CPK to PepsiCo (the company later increased its stake in California Pizza Kitchen to 67 percent). Flax and Rosenfield continued to run the California Pizza Kitchen company while PepsiCo oversaw the growth from 35 restaurants in the early 90's to over 100 locations by the time PepsiCo decided to divest themselves of the CPK brand.
California Pizza Kitchen was then bought by an investment company in 1997 with Flax and Rosenfield holding 25% interest in the company. CPK eventually went public and opened a number of new restaurants just after the turn of the century. However, a number of the new restaurants didn't meet sales expectations and the company began to flounder financially. Flax and Rosenfield took over day-to-day operation of the CPK restaurants in 2003 and the company came back strong financially posting a three-fold increase in profits over the previous year.
Today, there are over 250 California Pizza Kitchens in 32 states and Guam, as well as locations in 10 countries including China, India, South Korea and Japan. In addition to the restaurants, California Pizza Kitchen has a working agreement with the Nestle Corporation for their line of frozen pizzas that are sold in grocery stores across the nation.
I've had my chances to eat at a California Pizza Kitchen over the years, but never really sought one out because most of the reviews I'd heard from people weren't overwhelmingly positive. You see California Pizza Kitchens in places like upscale malls or shopping districts. They are generally catering to people on the go, lunch crowds and families who need to get in and get out.
It was just before 9 p.m. when we walked up to the hostess stand at the California Pizza Kitchen in the Mirage. The CPK in the Mirage is located right next to the huge sports book so it can be a little loud in there. But the acoustics are dampened enough that you can carry on civil conversations at the table. It took a little time to come up with a table for us - they basically pushed together a couple of table for six and took away two end chairs. We got our menus and started to look as to what they had to offer.
In addition to eclectic pizzas topped with pears and gorgonzola, pesto chicken, or roasted artichoke and spinach, California Pizza Kitchen offers entrees like chicken marsala, Baja fish tacos, and Kung Pao spaghetti - a spicy Kung Pao sauce with hot red chiles, peanuts and garlic with your choice of chicken or shrimp (or both) over a bed of spaghetti. Uh, naw. That just doesn't sound appetizing at all.
I just decided to go with my old stand-by pizza - a sausage, pepperoni and mushroom pizza. My colleague, Jon, who was seated across the table from me said that sounded good and wanted to know if I wanted to split one. When we asked the waiter how big the pizzas were he said, "They're pretty small. A person can usually finish one of our pizzas." So we each ordered one for ourselves. One of our guys from Montreal, Michel, decided to get the jambalaya spagetti - Calfornia Pizza Kitchen's own jambalaya mixed with spaghetti. It sounded better than the Kung Pao spaghetti, I'll give you that. Most of the rest of the people at the table ordered pizza, although my boss, Daniel ordered the CPK cobb salad.
I ordered a Sam Adams Lager that was on tap. The waiter said, "Do you want the big glass?" I said, sure, why not? And when he brought it back, we all got a big chuckle out of it. It was a 32 oz. glass, almost too unwieldy to handle. I joked to my colleague, Ian, seated next to me, "I think I need a straw!"
They didn't handle the food order very well at California Pizza Kitchen. Jon's and my pizza were delivered almost room temperature to the table - and actually long before anyone else received their food. When everyone was finally served, I had a couple pieces of pizza down - I wasn't going to wait on everyone else because the already lukewarm pizza was getting colder by the minute.
I didn't bring my camera phone with me to dinner - the battery wore down quickly when I was out in Las Vegas, probably due to so much wireless traffic going on all over the city during CES, and I had it on the charger. But this is a picture I found on their web site of a typical California Pizza Kitchen pizza. I think this is the barbecue chicken pizza, if I remember correctly. It's a classic Neapolitan-style pizza with a light, flaky thin crust with thicker crust along the edges. The sausage was OK, nothing special. The pepperoni was sort of hard to find - they really skimped on the pepperoni. And while the mushrooms were fresh, I didn't find them to be very big in size. This was an average pizza, at best. I was not very impressed.
However, my colleague Michel raved about his jambalaya spaghetti. He said, "It's very good. Surprisingly good. And spicy!" It had thick chunks of andouille sausage along with crawfish, chicken and shrimp mixed in with the spaghetti pasta. It actually did look very good.
That will probably be my first and last trip to California Pizza Kitchen, unless I'm in a pinch and need food fast like we did that evening in Las Vegas. Now I know why I've passed them by all these years. I can think of a number of other places I'd rather get a pizza than one at a California Pizza Kitchen. They're sort of the Olive Garden of pizza places. While they seem to be wildly popular with people because they feature a lot of interesting items on the menu, nothing is really outstanding. But the jambalaya spaghetti was intriguing. I may have to see if I can make that at home sometime.