07/09/2014 12:23 pm ET Updated Sep 07, 2014

California Pizza Kitchen Revamps Decor and Menu!

all photos by Jay

In 1985 I received a phone call from two casual friends who invited me to the opening of their new pizza joint. Century City attorneys Larry Flax and Rick Rosenfield told me that they had pulled together $200,00 in bank loans and savings, along with $350,000 invested from friends, to lease a restaurant space at 212 South Beverly Drive. Calling it CALIFORNIA PIZZA KITCHEN, the guys told me it would feature California-style pizzas developed by the legendary Wolfgang Puck pizza-maker Ed LaDou. I was offered the opportunity to buy some shares in the store but passed; some friends like Fred Hayman invested heavily and subsequently reaped large returns. I remember that first day, when Ed served up a selection of unique, innovative, unconventional pizzas, ones like a BBQ Chicken Pizza, which immediately won plaudits. I recall there was a BLT Pizza, a Thai Chicken one, even a Jamaican Jerk Pizza! (Didn't love that one at all.) There were fresh salads, soups, pastas, sandwiches and good desserts. I think they were the first pizza place to øffer a Children's Menu for kids under ten. I wrote a nice review and then watched in astonishment as the CPK chain caught on, with new branches turning up everywhere as the guys rapidly expanded. By 1992, there was 26 CPKs. That's when Pepsi Cola paid almost $100 million for 67% of the chain, with Rick and Larry each receiving $17.5 million. The Pepsi investment was a disaster, and in '97 a private investment bank bought the Pepsi interest and pushed rapidly for further expansion. The 'boys' were on the board but had no controls.... until 2003, when they discovered vast hidden failures and resumed control. Three years ago this week, CPK was acquired by the private equity firm Golden Gate Capital. Today I was told unofficially, they have about 230 locations in 32 American states, as well stores in 11 other countries. New are the 26 CPK ASAP Kiosks in airports and malls. And I know that gluten-free pizzas are on the horizon, a fascinating trend of which I heartily approve.

New to the menu is this Fire-Grilled Ribeye Steak for $24,99

The new owners have been opportuning me to come visit the original location to see a platform for the changes they are instituting chainwide, calling it Recipe for Reimaginaton, and this week I spend several hours eating my way through the new menu while observing the effects of the new decor on its customers. All favorable. They have redone the place to make it warmer, more diner-friendly, lots of unfinished reclaimed wood and warm colors. There are fewer booths, more tables, new dishes and glassware, while a living herb garden emphasized their commitment to using fresh local ingredients. But I'm wary enough to realize that it all comes down to the operating people and the food coming out of the kitchen. Someone at CPK was wise enough to hire away from Chin Chin the astute, charming and ever-vigilant new Managing Partner here, Camilla Waddilov. She's a smiling whirlwind with eyes in the back of her head as she supervises the smooth service handling hordes of customers rushing in at lunch and dinner. Our sensational waitress Meron Magox, of Ethiopian descent, was skilled, fast and professional. I had asked my friend Fred Levinson to join me in tasting many of the new dishes, and we discovered a pleasing new menu. More Main Plates and seasonal items, For midday diners looking for a lunch less ordinary, a diverse selection of Lunch Duos offers dozens of pairing combinations starting at $8.95. The new beverage menu features an adventurous selection of hand-crafted cocktails.

Hearth-roasted Halibut from Alaska is $22.79, an excellent buy.

Much has been made of the new Fire-Grilled Ribeye Steak ($24.99), a 12-oz USDA choice piece of beef which has been grilled with a pinot noir sea salt and then topped with a creamy knob of blue cheese (a perfect choice!) Both of us commented all through the meal about the wonderful quality of the vegetables served with the various dishes. Here there were roasted fingerling potatoes and a lemon-garlic arugula salad (which I immediately transferred to a separate plate.) Fred is a steak aficionado and nodded his approval. ("It's not the equivalent of the thick ribeye served at Ruth's Chris across the street, but it's a lot less expensive than that," he said.) Camilla pointed me to the Hearth-Roasted Halibut ($22.79), telling me that it was wild-caught haibut from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. It was roasted on a cedar plank with butternut squash farro (a grain), baby kale and grilled asparagus. I asked Meron for a dish of lemons and once they were squeezed atop the hunk of pristine fish, the blandness was gone. I prefer my fish a little less well-cooked but then again I'm in the minority here. Freddie had spotted a dish of Roasted Garlic Chicken ($18.99) and we ordered it. Crispy-skinned chicken breast was dressed with a lemn-garlic sauce, again with those wonderful little fingerling potatoes, heirloom carrots, cauliflower and Mediterranean herbs. Chicken was very well cooked, somewhat dry, needed some olive oil to juice it up. Yes, I'll get to the new pizzas in a moment, but server Meron insisted we taste the Maine Lobster Flatbread ($11.29), chunks of lobster meat dressed with mayo and fresh herbs, arugula and shaved red onions on a Parmesan flatbread. It turned out to be one of the most delicious things we ate this day...I would reurn for this alone.

Maine Lobster Flatbread was one of the best appetizers we had.

The new Spinach-Mushroom Pizza was one of my favorites. Alos new is the gluten-free pizzas.

Managing Partner/Manager Camilla Waddilove is one reason the place runs so smoothly.

But I wanted to sample some of the new pizzas..and first was a Sunny Side Up Bacon + Potato Pizza ($15.99), those tasty little fingerlings are shaved and placed on top of the excellent Nueske apple-smoked bacon, with caramelized leeks, parmesan, mozzzarella, and lots of fresh cracked pepper. All topped with two sunnyside up eggs. We both commented on the 'crust' of all the pizzas we ate this day...medium-thick, well-made, perhaps could use a bit more fire to char them more, but excellent. (Freddie and I are die-hard lovers of the extra thin-crusted pizzas of New York. Actually there are a half-dozen such crisp thin-crust pies on the menu.) You can get a wheat whole grain pizza crust upon request, and those gluten-free pizzas are being rolled out as we speak. Although I've eased up, I'm still trying to follow a gluten-free regime to some extent.

Roastd Garlic Chicken was juicy and well-cooked for $18.99

We noted that many of our neighbor diners were choosing the Lunch Duos, selecting two options from a selection of 7" pizzas, salads, half-sandwiches (with the option to order a full size) and soups. (The home-made Farmer's Market vegetable soup was superb.) My favorite pizza this day was the Shaved Mushroom and Spinach Pizza. There are Harvest Kale Salads and a Spinach + Quinoa Salad. You would not recognize this extensive menu from that which came before. From a Spicy Chicken Quesadilla ($5.79) to White Corn Guacamole ($4.39) to Crispy Mac 'n Cheese ($4.29), there is something for everyone. Tortilla spring rolls. Chicken Dumplings, even a Two-in-a-Bowl Soup (two different soups in the same bowl). We made plans to return after the holidays to sample the eight pastas...Bolognese spaghetti ($12.99), Kung Pao Spaghetti ($10.99), Shrimp Scampi Zucchini ($14.79). Especially the Jambalaya Fettucini ($16.29). Don't you love all those crazy price points....16.29, must take a vivid imagination to come up with those figures. CPK was never known for having great desserts, but those days are gone..their sweet treats are really superb. Two desserts are served in lovely little glass jars....the Salted Caramel Pudding ($4.99)...the flaked sea salt atop the rich caramel pudding with its homemade whipped is really something satisfying. But it's the S'MORES ($5.49) which put us away......kettle-cooked Belgian chocolate pudding, dark chocolate chunks, double graham cracker and toasted marshmallows...unbelieveable. Fred wanted to try the Key Lime Pie ($6.49), on a graham cracker crust with housemade whipped cream, and the key lime tasted real. Red Velvet Cake, Chocolate Souffle Cake, Butter Cake...this is not your father's CPK.

Meron Mogox was one of the wonderful. well-trained servers.

..while my neighbors were enjoyng one of the many salads.

As a long-time observer of California Pizza Kitchen, having been with them since the beginning, I must take my hat off to the new CEO, GJ Hart, and his staff for having the imagination to think 'outside of the box.' The manager told me that Larry and Rick had been in recently and highly approved of what they saw. Smart guys, them. As always.

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