It's got to be excruciating for an entrepreneur to watch from the sidelines when someone else takes over and promptly runs the business into the ground.
That was what happened to California Pizza Kitchen, founded by Larry Flax and Rick Rosenfield in 1985, when gourmet pizzas were all the rage. The first restaurant in Beverly Hills was a runaway success, they expanded around the country and got bought out by a major corporation, which started replacing fresh ingredients -- even cheese -- with frozen.
Eventually the founders regained control of the company and last year hired a new CEO, who made changes to reposition the chain into the popular fast-casual niche of the restaurant world. They've dumped the dough press for the pizza crust and gone back to hand tossing, more seasonal variations on the menu, small plates, craft beers, wine flights and more. G.J. Hart, the CEO, was quoted in Nation's Restaurant News saying he hoped "lapsed customers will come back and say, 'Wow, this place is hip and cool.'"
I was skeptical, but I must say if you haven't visited CPK in a while you will find it a different place in a lot of ways. The Bakersfield store isn't as crowded as BJ's or Chili's or even Elephant Bar, three similar chains, but it doesn't have the same food it did when it opened. The quality of the food and wine is a serious step up from what it was, to the point that I could see visiting here instead of Eureka! or Chipotle nearby.
Let's start with one of the inspired specialty pizzas we got a chance to sample, the California Club ($13). It's big enough for two. The crust was what you expect from a restaurant, crisp, yeasty, substantial but not distracting. The toppings were solid: Nueske's bacon, roasted chicken and mozzarella, topped after baking with arugula, Romaine and basil tossed in a lemon-pepper mayonnaise, and then crowned with slices of avocado. It was brilliant in both execution and design. I might have quibbled with the use of mayo instead of vinaigrette, but it wasn't heavy, and the black pepper was a nice choice with the natural peppery spunk of the arugula. A warning on the bacon: It's very assertive and will diminish other bacons for you forever, as will the Nueske's bacon-cheddar bratwurst sausage if you ever try that.
What was odd to me was that one side had a few slices of tomato on it, which was a perfect touch for a club sandwich, but I didn't see that on the menu.
My companion ordered one of the small plates, an arugula/asparagus salad with sun-dried tomatoes, almonds, shaved Parmesan and a house-made lemon vinaigrette ($4.95), that was perfect in execution and design. I was tempted to check to see if we were at the right restaurant.
I recommend finishing it all off with the salted caramel pudding dessert ($4.75), served in a glass with chocolate cookie crumbs on the bottom and fresh-made whipped cream on top.
On another visit, we were impressed by one of the specialty pizzas from the past, the garlic chicken ($13), made with silvered scallions, black pepper, caramelized onions and both mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. Not earth-shattering, but very satisfying. Other intriguing choices I can't wait to try on future visits include the wild mushroom pizza (made with four fresh mushrooms, and you can get a drizzle of white truffle oil), the habanero carnitas pizza (made with pulled pork), the roasted artichoke and spinach thin crust (lots of options for vegetarians here) as well as the kung pao spaghetti (available with chicken, shrimp or both).
The wine lists have improved as well, and I loved the flights (white, red or "adventurous"), which include three three-ounce samples for $12. The wines are from New Zealand, Washington, Australia and California. For example, the red had La Crema Pinot Noir, Ravenswood Zinfandel and a J. Lohr Cabernet.
The interior is largely unchanged from when the restaurant opened, though the company intends to launch a remodel that would put the pizza oven front and center.
Oddly, there are six packs of small Coke and Diet Coke bottles on display all over the place, probably a subliminal advertising maneuver. Or maybe just a tacky corporate touch.
Service from Miguel was absolutely amazing. He showed the polish of a true restaurant professional from start to finish, handling his tables with an uncommon grace that enhanced our dining experience.
If you haven't been to CPK in a long time, check it out. It's a different type of place now, and definitely moving in the right direction.