"The first time I saw that place, I almost caused a traffic accident," a friend of mine says about the grandiose cafe. Oddly, I hear keep hearing similar stories every time I mention Grand Lux Cafe. Seldom has a restaurant opening inspired this kind of "shock and awe" among jaded Houstonians.
Appropriately enough, the cafe occupies the former location of FAO Schwarz, the New York toy store chain known for its larger-than-life Christmas displays. Grand Lux Cafe has created a fantasyland of another variety here. It's Willy Wonka's Pan-European Grand Cheesecake Factory, and it's as impressive as it is ridiculous.
I have to admit, it's a lot of fun to eat here. You can't help but gape at the high ceilings and fantastic fixtures. The vast expanses of marble look like something you'd find in a courthouse or an old-fashioned train station. The diverse crowd makes it feel even more like a public building.
The lighting is incredible. The ceiling fixtures emit a low golden tone that makes everyone and everything look marvelous. You just want to sit here and watch people come and go for hours. And while the interior is extremely elegant, the dress code is very casual.
Grand Lux Cafe is owned by the same company as the Cheesecake Factory, and its menu is equally extensive. There are steaks, sandwiches, salads, burgers, pizzas, vegetarian stuff, pasta, salads, grilled fish and a whole lot of boneless, skinless chicken breasts.
Since there's a Cheesecake Factory directly across the street from Grand Lux, I went over and got a to-go menu and brought it back for a side-by-side comparison. Crispy wrappers stuffed with spicy chicken, corn and black beans are called spicy Santa Fe rolls at Grand Lux. Over at the Cheesecake Factory, they call them Tex-Mex rolls. The basic burgers are the same price at both places, and so are the barbecued chicken and Thai pizzas. There are differences, but they are nominal.
I tried the "max burger" at Grand Lux, and it was something of a disaster. The half-pound Black Angus patty was cooked medium rare, and the cheddar, applewood smoked bacon, mushrooms, onions and roasted short ribs stacked up on the sesame seed bun all tasted wonderful. But the bottom half of the bun was already soaked through and gooey by the time I tried to pick it up. There was a hamburger avalanche on the way to my mouth. I ate the debris with a knife and fork.
The "chop house burger" was cheaper and much easier to handle. The Black Angus beef patty had an agreeable char flavor, and the fontina cheese was suitably sharp. But it was really just your ordinary $9 Houston hamburger. Both burgers came with fries, which appeared to be of the previously frozen variety.
The margherita pizza was soggy in the middle; the spaghettini with fresh clams was sparsely sauced; and the Wiener schnitzel with mashed potatoes and too-sweet red cabbage was competently cooked but lackluster overall. The clam chowder had nice big clams, lots of bacon and too much thickener for my tastes.
A lame attempt at fusion cuisine called Asian nachos, made by topping fried wonton skins with chicken in a toothache-sweet peanut sauce, was horrific. Another "fusion" creation called Malaysian chicken salad was the best dish I sampled in three visits to Grand Lux. Of course, the mixture of chopped chicken, apples, grapes, raisins, celery and onion in a mild curried mayonnaise served in a lettuce cup is actually an old Southern recipe that you would never see in Malaysia.
On the strength of the chopped chicken salad, I decided to try the Manhattan chopped salad topped with steak. I should have known better when the waitress described it as a "garbage salad." It contained romaine, green beans, asparagus, tomato, white beans, beets, onion, lentils, peas and some other stuff all chopped up into little bitty pieces. The dressing tasted like water. Or maybe they didn't drain the vegetables well enough. Whatever the cause, the salad was so bad, I took a few bites, and asked them to box it up. I figured maybe I could take it home and make soup.
The highly recommended chicken potpie turned out to be a bowl of chicken stew with a wafer of baked pastry crust loosely fitted over the top. The white-meat chicken was tender, and the potato and carrot cubes tasted okay, but it had none of the baked-together goodness of a fresh chicken potpie. The sauce was so creamy, my dining companion remarked, "I feel like I'm eating a bowl of butter."
As you might expect of a restaurant owned by the Cheesecake Factory, the best thing to eat at Grand Lux Cafe is dessert. I was very impressed by the banana cream pie, which wasn't a single slice but a small round individual pie with a graham cracker crust and a huge pile of vanilla whipped cream on top.
Their best desserts, however, are baked to order. I sampled a brownie cake filled with molten chocolate served hot out of the oven with vanilla ice cream. It was somebody else's dessert, but it was very hard to stop eating. I also tried a few samples from the box of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies, which included enough cookies for five or six people. I ended up taking them home and packing them in my kid's lunch all week. The rustic apple pie sounded good, too. And there's an ice cream sandwich made with fresh-out-of-the-oven almond cookies I'd like to try.
By my third visit, Grand Lux Cafe had been open for about two weeks, and there was already a half-hour wait for a table on a Wednesday night at eight. The place was hopping. I'm convinced the food had very little to do with it.
The Houston location is the fifth Grand Lux Cafe. In addition to the original in Las Vegas, there's one in Dallas, one in Chicago and one in Beverly Hills. According to the restaurant's Web site, "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."
To re-create the opulence of Venice, Overton went to Europe and studied restaurant architecture, the Web site goes on to say. But it seems the Cheesecake Factory founder got his V cities mixed up. The look that Grand Lux Cafe attempts to replicate isn't Venetian, it's Viennese.
Okay, maybe the giant round hatbox chandeliers with the striped clown hats sticking out of the middle are an allusion to Venetian carnival costumes. And the high ceilings might remind you a bit of Brasserie Georges in Lyons.
But mostly this is a knock-off of fin-de-siècle Viennese coffeehouses. And most of the design elements were stolen directly from turn-of-the-century Viennese artist Gustav Klimt. The choir of angels painting that you see through the front window is a copy of a section of Klimt's Beethoven Frieze, and the curlicues all over the walls were lifted from his painting L'Albero della Vita ("The Tree of Life").
But hey, Venice, Vienna -- who's going to know the difference in Vegas?
Like the Styrofoam Italian statues at Caesars Palace, Grand Lux Cafe is a "fabulous fake." It reminds you of the real thing over in Europe, but it's actually hollow inside. Still, it's fun to visit fantasyland sometimes.