I've been looking forward to visiting Central Park Cafe on Fair Oaks in Pasadena for some time. I drive by this site almost every day and admired the way they refurbished the building after the old Soda Jerks place closed down. I read some of the reviews here first, and then went with my father and wife this evening. I have to say that although some signs of a good restaurant were present, on the whole I was quite disappointed.
The atmosphere was pleasant if a bit loud when crowded. The exposed beams, stained cement floor, and B&W portraits of celebs all worked well. The tables felt a bit close together, but none of that would have mattered if the food had been a home run.
The beverages menu was a very, very bad sign. The extensive wine list was in startling contrast to the complete lack of any decent beer whatsoever, with the single exception of Samuel Adams. THIS IS CALIFORNIA! More amazing beers are brewed and distributed here than almost any other state in the country. Craftsman brewery is located right here in Pasadena and could easily supply this place with kegs. There is NO EXCUSE for a California bistro that serves food that CRIES out for fine craft beer like steaks and seafood to not take beer even slightly seriously, with only a ubiquitous Boston-brewed beer as a decent choice. When my Sam Adams did come, it was served in a chilled water glass. Again, absolutely pathetic. Go to Cost Plus and invest in a few cases of proper beer glass, for hops sake.
We started with the fried calimari, which was good. The bits of chile added flavor and color, and the two dipping sauces - a homemade tartar sauce and some sort of tomato sauce - were nice.
Next I got my Caesar salad, which was horrible. The moment I saw the salad, I felt a kind of desolate sadness emanating from the pit of my stomach. The lettuce was obviously from a bag, all pre-cut to the exact same size. The croutons were also pre-packaged and completely bland. The "parmesan" was likewise frozen and pre-grated and merely dumped on top of the salad from a bag. The dressing was mediocre. No Worcester sauce. No anchovies. No egg. No life. I could only eat about 1/3. Why bother putting Caesar on the menu if you can't do a decent version?
The main course was, fortunately, worth eating. On the advice of a previous reviewer here, I ordered the flatiron steak cooked medium rare, and found it to be delicious. It was served on top of some potato gratin and the reduced wine sauce was well done. The carrots and beans were nicely cooked. My father had the Sand Dabs and really enjoyed it, though the mashed potatoes were a bit bland. My wife had the fish and chips, and enjoyed the fish and tartar sauce but found the french fries to be completely pedestrian. Our dessert, creme brulee, was fine but nothing special.
Central Park Cafe, in short, is a few steps away from being a good restaurant. The lack of any serious attention to beer is, for me, a deal breaker, and I will not return until they fill out their beverage menu. I also found the inclusion of a Caesar salad that only barely improves on the packaged Caesar salad from Trader Joes to be insulting. Otherwise, a decent night out.