Before the opening of Hollywood and Highland, I did not think Los Angeles capable of erecting a structure as aesthetically confused as the Hotel Sofitel, a Riveria–meets–Holiday Inn monstrosity across the street from the Beverly Center. This quaint notion was forever dashed by the opening of the new Grand Lux Cafe, set into the mall‘s southeast corner — a restaurant whose facade of marbles and mosaics and bronzed angels is one of jaw-dropping, head-scratching disorder. The first time I drove past, I wondered if I’d somehow veered into a cosmic wormhole and wound up in Las Vegas.
Which I sort of did, Grand Lux being the brainchild of the folks at the Cheesecake Factory, who three years ago launched their flagship Grand Lux at the Venetian. (Another is planned for Chicago.) Vegas‘ decadelong revamp into universal theme park, with Technicolor renditions of Paris and New York, the stratosphere and ancient Rome, has proved mesmerizing to a gazillion tourists; why mess with passports, the Euro and gravity when one can whiz through space and time in a weekend?
Grand Lux is testing the formula in Los Angeles, and from the looks of things at a recent lunch, it could score big. Past the exterior chaos, the entryway is turn-of-the-century French bistro suffused with present-day Hollywood: The ceilings are 22 feet high, the natty waitstaff communicate via headsets, and the inviting mirrored bar incorporates two TVs tuned to CNN. After being ushered through a hall aglow in golden light, one is seated in a dining room of almost baroque tackiness, with ceilings a la Versailles (a riot of mosaics and gilding), veined black marble tabletops, mauve-and-evergreen banquettes, and ornate colonnades stenciled with vaguely Egyptian whorls. The din in the room is incredible; every ting of a tine is discernible amid the voices of hundreds of customers, eating what the menu flaunts as “over 100 choices.”
You know what they are: 20 appetizers that nod to Asia (BBQ-duck potstickers), Latin America (stacked chicken quesadilla) and the Land of Fry, including crispy portobello mushrooms served with a garlic aioli that tastes like Hidden Valley ranch. A salad of endive, frisee and Gorgonzola, tossed with bacon and a few candied walnuts, is peppery and rich, the appetizer portion easily feeding two. There are eight pizzas, 15 sandwiches, 10 pastas and twice as many carnivorous selections from both “the oven and broiler” and “the pan and grill.” While trying to choose entrees, we spot a neighboring table’s fish-and-chips and California chopped salad, towering portions spilling over their 14-inch plates. Which is when one realizes one must simply give in, as deciding what to eat at Grand Lux is not about sustenance, but spectacle. When the waiter asks if we want to preorder dessert, we choose both the beignets with three dipping sauces and the molten-chocolate cake. And how about some cocktails?
While trying to get my jaw around a six-inch-high shrimp-and-bacon sandwich, which is overpowered by more of the ersatz aioli, I notice nine women moaning at me. Painted above each colonnade are choruses of vaguely Klimt-like maidens, their mouths dreamily agape. I stop a passing manager: Are those supposed to be the Muses?
“Why, yes,” he says, seeming delighted I‘ve asked. “The designers were told they could do anything they wanted, and were basically given a blank checkbook.”
Does he know how much they spent?
“Twelve million,” he says. “As you can see, the effect is eclectic.”
My boyfriend gamely tries to finish a trencherman’s portion of spaghettini with dozens of tender baby clams in the shell, but it‘s too much food, and too little flavor in the simple parsley-and-olive-oil sauce. The 20 minutes we were told the desserts would take become 40, the lunch crowd leaves, and the mood becomes not one of having all this grandeur to oneself, but of overload. If you’re in the mood, and for a price, you can have it all; if you‘re not, the luxury appears a ruse to distract you from dishes you could get at . . . well, the Cheesecake Factory.
We eat half of the pretty good molten cake and a few of the dozen eggy beignets, pay the $78 check, and stumble onto the street, utterly exhausted. I look again at the bronzed angels; their faces are bland, modern, as if a showgirl’s head had been transplanted onto Winged Victory. Is eating too much food in a razzle-dazzle room beneath a shopping mall what people want? Do you have to ask?
121 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 855-1122. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Full bar. Parking in the Beverly Center. All major credit cards.