OK, why not CityWalk? This two-block reproduction of something like Third Street in Santa Monica isn’t much like a real L.A. street (there’s nobody holding a single “Will Work for Food” sign), but then the adjacent Universal Studios ride where your boat is attacked by the “Jaws” shark isn’t much like a real boat ride. Lighten up--it’s entertainment.
When you exit the parking structure, you are face-to-face with a giant video screen full of disconnected MTV-style images. From here on, the exaggerated visuals (one shop has a roof like a surfboard and a pool out front where miniature waves crash), to say nothing of the neon glare, just get more and more intense. People love it. You can buy all sorts of stuff at a fancy soap emporium, a toy store, a science-fiction store, a magic shop, even clothing stores. And you can eat. Years ago, restaurant designers concluded that a lot of us eat out so we can be part of a crowd; here you’re not just in a crowd, you struggle against it wherever you walk.
There are many places serving food, but only a few are serious. The possibilities begin slowly with Lighthouse Beach Cafe (sandwiches, live rock bands), followed by Cafe Puccino (espresso) and Morisawa Sushi (Japanese food). The first major restaurant (and it claims to seat more than 700 people) is Gladstone’s Universal, not associated with the Pacific Palisades waterfront restaurant of the same name.
This Gladstone’s can serve you steaks or chicken or fish, but shellfish is really what’s going on here: chowders, cocktails and steamed or mesquite-broiled stuff in shells. The crab cakes are thicker than most local models. The clam chowder has a non-New England gumminess, like every other clam chowder in L.A., but at least the clams are sweet. You can choose that chowder with any entree, but you’d be missing out on an unusually good coleslaw.
Next comes Tony Roma’s, the 128th or so in a chain of overrated rib joints known for sugary barbecue sauce and shoe-box-sized blocks of fried onions. Right next to it, KWGB (World’s Greatest Burger) has a radio station motif, complete with disc jockey. The burgers are indeed terrific: big thick patties of freshly ground beef.
Camacho’s Cantina, seating 275, turns out very flavorful regional Mexican food. The ceviche tostada is tart with lime juice, the gordita --more or less a sandwich using two slices of cornmeal--has a rich filling of pork plus guacamole.
The beef enchiladas come in a savory red sauce and the tamales have a good fluffy texture. Bring an appetite if you order the cochinita pibil , a mass of rich, steamed pork that may be the best version of this Mayan dish in town. If you can finish an appetizer and an order of pork and then polish off dessert, you’re a major-league eater. The desserts run to crepes with caramel, bananas flamed with 151-proof rum and deep-fried bunuelos with chocolate sauce.
Now you pass a juice stand, a nut dispensary, a Haagen-Dazs outlet and Upstart Crow Coffeehouse & Bookstore, which serves espresso. At last you encounter Wolfgang Puck Cafe, capacity 108, planned as the first in a chain of reasonably priced pizza-pasta restaurants from the Spago-meister (time will tell whether the rest of them will also get garish murals by Puck’s wife, Barbara Lazaroff). The menu reads like Wolf’s Greatest Hits: the Chinois chicken salad in a spicy honey-mustard dressing, smoked salmon pizza with dill-cream sauce and red onions, a vegetable pizza sweet with fennel and wild mushroom tortellini with mushrooms, garlic and Parmesan.
Grandma Puck’s linguine with chicken Bolognese gives a credible impression of an Italian meat sauce despite the use of chicken. The bull’s-eye cheesecake (concentric rings of chocolate cheesecake) is actually a stripped-down version of Maida Heatter’s creation, but in the bustle of CityWalk, you might not be able to tell. Or care.
Those are the big shots of this promenade, and often you face an hour’s wait to get in any of them during the crunch. But you can get a takeout burger at KWGB or one of Jody Maroni’s famous sausages. You’ll still have to wait, but you’ll be out in the crowds, rubbing shoulders, ruining your eyesight on the neon signs.
And face it, that’s why you’re here. If you just wanted to walk around on a street getting panhandled, you’d be in Santa Monica.
CityWalk, 1000 Universal Center Drive, Universal City. Lot or valet parking. The more serious restaurants include:
Gladstone’s Universal CityWalk, (818) 622-3474. Full bar. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Lunch and dinner served daily, brunch Saturday and Sunday. Dinner for two, food only, $30-$50.
Camacho’s Cantina, (818) 622-3333. All major credit cards accepted. Lunch and dinner served daily. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $30-$56.
Wolfgang Puck Cafe, (818) 985-9653. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Lunch and dinner served daily. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $32-$57.