Who knew the time would come in Bakersfield when having a patio available for al fresco dining would become so valuable?
Once the governor decided in early July that the pandemic required an end to indoor dining at restaurants, the creativity exploded usually into the parking lot. If you didn’t have a patio in the past, you created one with those white metal-frame shading structures the way Wiki’s Wine Dive & Grill did. KC Steakhouse, Tina Marie’s, Renae’s Cafe, Woodstone Pizza, Los Molcajetes and Mossman’s (both locations) all expanded their outdoor seating. Temblor got misters installed.
Let’s face it, businesses are based on a certain volume to cover the overhead and sacrificing all those indoor seats can quickly turn any place into an involuntary nonprofit.
One restaurant that we haven’t written about in five years that didn’t expand their patio but is doing practically everything right to reassure those worried about the virus that they’ll be safe is California Pizza Kitchen on Stockdale Highway. They have little Post-it stickers that the cleaning staff member puts on each table after cleaning it, assuring you it has been sanitized. Everyone on the staff not only has a mask but even when our charming waitress Laura took our order, she maintained an appropriate social distance.
Customers seemed to mostly have masks when arriving and naturally took them down when eating and drinking. The misters kept things cool, the breeze hopefully kept any stray COVID-19 particles moving along, and we walked away thinking this is a place that’s doing it right. Some tables were kept empty to keep social distancing working.
Offerings consist of a special, more-limited menu, but you’ll forgive that as in recent years the CPK menu has grown extensively, not quite to Cheesecake Factory/Charles Dickens-like levels but still far more beastly than it used to be. On our visit, we selected the classic barbecue chicken pizza, adding the Nueske’s bacon ($16.49 plus $2.25 for the bacon) as everyone should, the chicken piccata ($18.49), the Santa Fe power bowl for my companion ($16.49) and the butter pecan cake for dessert ($9.99). No beers on tap, but many available in bottles.
Couldn’t say anything was better than anything else, but this pizza is a classic, so famous you can pick it up in the freezer section at Vons but I don’t have to tell you it’s not close to the same in quality when you get it at the grocery store. The pizza was the chain’s first specialty item back in 1985 when the place capitalized on the trend started by Wolfgang Puck and the smoked gouda, the cilantro and the simple but not too sweet barbecue sauce are what make it a winner.
Being a Wisconsin native, it sometimes stuns me to see Nueske’s bacon become a trendy national item, but its pronounced smokiness and meaty tendency (some bacon is too fatty) have been long appreciated by our family. Johnsonville sausages are another old favorite from Sheboygan that have spread to the west. It’s good to be alive today.
My companion has been loving the restaurant trend toward bowls as a variation on a salad that packs a lot more nutrition into the dining experience. Over the years, she’s enjoyed their Cobb, Thai crunch and barbecue chicken chopped salad, but this bowl wowed with farro cooked with cilantro, spinach, subtly flavored lime chicken breast strips, black beans, sweet corn, red cabbage, toasted pepitas, tomatoes and fresh avocado. The key to the whole thing, what tied it all together, was a house-made poblano ranch on the side with a slight green tint and a slight kick that made the whole bowl special. Neither of us had tried this before, but it was a star.
The chicken piccata featured two boneless breasts in a thin batter that was detaching substantially during the consuming process, linguini, capers and lemon in a light cream sauce. Not as startling or as innovative as that bowl we just talked about, but satisfying nevertheless.
Over the years, CPK has become known for some amazing desserts and I do believe we have loved them all, the salted caramel pudding with the chocolate cookie crumbs, the butter cake, the Belgian chocolate souffle cake, but this time we ventured into new territory with the butter pecan caramel cake, a spice cake with a thick caramel sauce on top, toasted pecans and a generous portion of Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream melting on top because it was served warm. The nutmeg is fairly heavy to the point that my companion thought it was a fall offering. This is what the corporate drive to turn everything into “Pumpkin Spice” at certain times of year has wrought. Trust me, this is good in our blazing summer heat, too. So moist.
The crew, not just our waitress Laura, were super pleasant. We’ve noticed that in restaurants since they reopened that a lot of people are just glad to be out and about whether they’re staff or customers, knowing that so many of the routines we took for granted were lost for a time. It’s good to be back out there, and if we’re smart till we get the vaccine, we will have brighter days ahead.