Grand Lux Cafe (Chicago)

If you like the Cheesecake Factory, you’ll like this place.

I hate the Cheesecake Factory.

From their website:

The idea for Grand Lux Cafe came to life when The Venetian Resort, Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas asked David Overton, Founder of The Cheesecake Factory Restaurants, to create an upscale casual restaurant concept for their property.

Excited by the proposal and the opulent “Venetian” theme, Mr. Overton traveled to Europe to study Italian trattorias, French bistros, and the grand cafes and pastry shops of Vienna. This culinary tour through Europe, focused on food, architecture, décor and design, provided the inspiration for what the restaurant was destined to become.

Blending the grandeur and luxury of European cafes with the sensibilities and spirit of an all-American restaurant, “Grand Lux Cafe” was born. Today, with locations in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas and Houston, Grand Lux Cafe is proud to offer our guests unique, casual global cuisine in an elegant yet relaxed atmosphere.

I’ve eaten in Venice, I’ve eaten in Italian trattorias and tons of French bistros. Beyond the hordes of loud tourists, I don’t see any other similarities. At least it isn’t expensive, which its’ only redeeming quality.

Grand Lux Cafe in Chicago

Cafe Juanita

From Anthony Bourdain’s Blog

If you’ve been performing very well as a novice sous-chef at Daniel Boulud’s Restaurant Daniel, and then, suddenly, make a horrible botch of even one Saturday night, you’re probably not going to be around next Saturday. Restaurants of Daniels caliber aren’t allowed to have a “bad night”. The food at a “top” chefs establishment is expected to be exactly as good, day in, day out, every day and every night, whether the chef is there or not. At that level, at those prices, with that level of expectation, where customers have booked months in advance, often traveling hundreds if not thousands of miles, it takes only one bad dish, one messed up plate, for people to start buzzing about the place going downhill — particularly in this era when half your customers seem to be food bloggers.

This is a lesson Cafe Juanita should have known already, but unfortunately could not remember. The east side of Lake Washington is a culinary desert compared to Seattle. There are a few bright spots amongst the sad chains, and Cafe Juanita is thought to be one of them. We’d eaten there a couple of times previously and felt that their food was pretty good, but overpriced. We wouldn’t have considered it for a special occasion unless it was for a friend on the east side. Then it came to our anniversary this year which happened to be on a bad night for fine dining, Tuesday. I felt pretty good when I was able to get the reservation at Cafe Juanita.

We arrived and they gave us a table right next to the fireplace. This would have been lovely except for the fact that as a result of our table, I was facing a large picture window which was facing a bend in the road. I asked if we could move to another table, but I was assured that we were at the best table in the place. As darkness settled, I was getting blinded every few seconds. Finally, N, had to watch the light move across my face and move her head to put my eyes into shadow. Not very romantic.

Our food itself ranged from OK, to downright inedible. For a three course meal at $100+ per person, this is inexcusable. As I said, our prior experiences had been ok, if not stellar. At this level, it doesn’t make sense to give a restaurant another shot once they’ve messed up. It is too expensive.

One bright spot was the wait staff who were very friendly and helpful. After returning a plate uneaten, however, there was no questioning of our satisfaction, offers of a different selection or refund on the bill.

We’re done with you Cafe Juanita.

Cafe Juanita in Kirkland

Downtown Dogs (Chicago)

For those who only think I like only hipster, expensive, restaurants. I give to you Downtown Dogs in Chicago at Rush and Chicago Ave. Whenever I’m back in my hometown and I find myself on the north end of Michigan Avenue, I stop in to this little shop-front hot dog place. I order a char dog (or two) with everything (except hot peppers). I’ll grab a Reader off the rack and listen to ‘XRT on the store’s stereo. It makes me feel like a native-born Chicagoan again. While all the tourists are packing in to Giordanos or any of the other tourist joints nearby, I’m enjoying the true Chicago experience.

Downtown Dogs in Chicago

The Local Vine

So, The Local Vine opened up mere steps from our front door in Belltown, but we avoided it for months. Partially because we were annoyed by the way they cordoned off the public sidewalk. Partially for the crowds of annoying smokers that always surrounded it, taking up what was left of the sidewalk and partially because we were waiting for the crowds to die down a bit.

Imagine our surprise when we found the place mostly empty at 8:30 on a Saturday night, on a holiday weekend, with Bumbershoot happening a few blocks away.

Counting ourselves lucky, we found a spot amongst the a-bit-too-modern-for-comfort furniture and sat down. We had read some of the reviews, so we knew the back story. This place was founded by two recent Harvard MBA grads looking to create a chain of neighborhood wine bars. They wanted to get people excited about wine in the way that Starbucks got them excited (and knowledgeable) about coffee. They were even offering free wireless as an enticement to sit and relax in their space.

Over our stay there, we found some fatal flaws for their business plan. The dark, candle-lit atmosphere screams romance (especially with wine). The lack of sound baffling unfortunately made that quite impossible as more people entered and the noise level became uncomfortable quickly. Speaking of uncomfortable, the low, backless furniture that is the majority of the place’s seating options is not very comfortable and makes it extremely difficult to have a meal without either hunching over the low table or risking spilling food over yourself as you make the long journey from your place to your mouth. The menu doesn’t help as it features a number of dishes dripping with sauces or other things dangerous to clothing. Their business plan may say “come, relax”, but their business actually says “go away.” The atmosphere itself was all about Belltown-cool which I can appreciate, but I have to admit that I’ve gotten tired of having hipster 20-somethings slouching and talking on a cellphone through their entire meal in my eye-line.

As we were here to actually eat and not lounge around drinking wine alone, we were excited that The Local Vine had gotten the chef from Crush in charge of the menu. The food itself was pretty good. For the portions and atmosphere it did feel overpriced. Most of the menu consists of small dishes, each priced between $8-$15. It took about 6 of them to feed the two of us. I would consider that a reasonably priced meal for the quality in a restaurant, but in the Local Vine it didn’t seem right.

The service was quite good when we sat down, but went down-hill as the restaurant filled up. By the end of the meal we were spending a lot of time trying to flag down someone to get our bill. This especially seemed strange because the employee to customer ratio was really high, even when the place was crowded. I’m really not sure how it devolved that badly.

Overall, I liked it. There are some serious problems there to be sure. The only thing that would get me to come back would be the food and then only early in the day when it isn’t too crowded. And then only if I wanted a snack and not a full meal. As far as the Starbucks-as-wine-bar concept, I think these MBAs need to learn a few more lessons before they’ll be able to successfully export this idea to other less-hip neighborhoods in Seattle, let alone other cities.

Local Vine in Seattle

The Black Bottle

In Brief: Uneven food, ok service, atmosphere not for everyone

The Black Bottle has been on our list of places to try for quite some time. There was a short period of time before it quickly became so popular that there was always a wait. We finally tried it tonight. The service wasn’t fast, but our server was attentive when she did come and was quite nice.

We ordered three items: the smoked chicken and sun-dried cherry flatbread; the saffron risotto cakes with pomodoro; and the potato and prosciutto wheels. Given that is sort of a small-plates/tapas style place, I was surprised how generous the portions were. These three dishes were more than the two of us could finish. The flatbread and potato and prosciutto wheels were quite good, the risotto cakes were somewhat bland and the pomodoro sauce didn’t really help. So the food was overall on the plus side, but not a gaurantee.

The environment is downtown chic: steel, concrete and exposed brick. I actually dig these kinds of places, however we were stuck in the back room where it 10 degrees warmer than the front room and 20 degrees hotter than it was outside. So warm that it became unbearable quickly and we had to leave prematurely.

The crowd in the restaurant was extremely skewed toward the 20 something hipster set. Again, not usually a problem, but the noise level quickly got out of control and being surrounded by bored youngsters talking on their cellphones gets old quickly.

I think this place might be a good late lunch or early dinner kind of place, but if you are over the age of 30 or married, you might want to give it a pass during peak hours.

Black Bottle in Seattle

The Oceanaire Seafood Room, San Diego

I’ve just returned from a conference in San Diego. Overall, it was a pretty dismal experience, food-wise. Rubber convention center chicken burgers, a rat in the dining room of the not-very-good Indian restaurant we tried. The restaurants in the Gaslamp quarter are there for the tourists and they don’t bother with anything more than a pretense at quality (although they don’t worry about overcharging for their pitiful fare).

When we decided to arrange a large dinner, I let the most food-quality-conscious person involved pick the restaurant. When I found out that the choice was the Oceanaire, I was excited: we had been meaning to try their Seattle location and one of their chefs is a contestant on Top Chef, a tv show we enjoy. Also, by this point, I was getting tired of really bad food. The best meals I’d had in San Diego were catered meeting food and that is not a good thing.

The Oceanaire seems to be a bit more of the style-over-substance kind of place. From the decor to the food presentations: Our appetizer platters were delivered as 2 foot tall ice mountains with various pieces of seafood stuck to the side. These were fairly good. Of course, there was no cooking involved, but at least they seemed to have gotten quality seafood.

My main course was a disappointment. I had a piece of Alaskan Halibut that was overcooked and had very little flavor. The potato/asparagus mixture sitting underneath the fish was quite good, but I had a bit of a hard time finishing the fish. At the conclusion of the main course, I noticed that several of my companions had not finished their main courses.

Desert was another over-the-top affair. We ordered several of the deserts for our party and split them amongst ourselves.  Each of these deserts was huge, suitable for 2-3 people and each of them they had the subtlety of an atom bomb. It wasn’t chocolate cake, it was CHOCOLATE CAKE!!!!! Most the of the desserts were ok, not outstanding. The New Yorkers at the table felt that the New York Cheesecake had the right flavors, but the wrong consistency. The bread pudding (usually one of my favorite items) was basely edible. Everything else was ok.

This meal with wine came to around $100/person. For me, I have to compare it to Seattle restaurants. I think that the food quality is a bit above Salty’s, Cutter’s or Palisade, but not by that much. It is also that kind of place, more for the tourists.

Let me put it this way: if I have $100/person to spend and I want seafood, I’ll go somewhere better. If I want to celebrate a special event, I’d probably do it at one of the view places I mentioned above. However, if friends wanted to go there, I’d probably go again just to see if I got them on an off night. If I was served the same meal I got this week, I probably would never return.


Life is too short for crummy food, N likes to say. It sometimes makes it difficult to try a new restaurant. Luckily, someone else made the reservations, because we might not have tried it otherwise. Located in a bit of a grim place it manages to convey a bit of high-end feel, although the furniture is a bit too space-age-bachelor-pad. The food and service were excellent with the prices in-line with the quality.

Absolutely recommended.


Crush in Seattle

Salty’s and Cutters

They stare across puget sound at each other like jealous lovers, but really they are more like brother and sister. Cutters gets the tourist traffic and serves the cruise-boat-crowd and Sleepless-In-Seattle-wannabes expensive seafood, while Salty’s gets the locals and serves them expensive seafood. In both cases you are paying for the view and in both cases the view justifies the price (mostly).

If you are a local, these are special occaison places. Places where you go to celebrate a birthday or other event. Locals know that there are many better places to get seafood in Seattle, but few with a view such as these. If you are tourist, you don’t know any better.

I don’t know if they have the same owner or if they just are stealing playbooks from each other, but both serve seafood that might be fresh or might be frozen. You’ll need to ask if you really care. To an extent it doesn’t really matter, because they will smother it in butter or cream sauces or surround it by mashed potatoes so that the flavor is lost anyway.

I find both to sort of fill a comfort food niche. You know that you’ll leave feeling full and somewhat bloated, your arteries clogging rapidly, but the food tasted decent, so you might not care (until you remember how much that you paid).

If you are going during daylight or near sunset, west-facing Cutters will be your choice. If you are having brunch or are eating after dark, Salty’s is the appropriate choice.

Get a reservation in either case.

If quality is your main concern, don’t bother with either. For the same prices, you can eat much better seafood in this town.

In fact, I can give a general tip that seems to hold up for every sea-side town I’ve ever been in: don’t eat in the restaurants on the waterfront (especially in the main part of town). They exist for tourists and will charge you too much money for average food.

I can’t think of an exception on Alaska Ave. I haven’t been to that pier-end place near the sculpture garden yet, and the bar at the Edgewater had good drinks, but I’ve eaten in pretty much every other establishment on the Seattle waterfront and the only place with a decent meal for the price is the walk-up window at Ivar’s and that is because it is cheap, not good.