A couple of weeks ago, we were in Macon, having dinner with our friends Rex and Rachel, and I mentioned a restaurant that I’d like to visit one of these days. Rex said that it’s become one of those restaurants where only much older people eat. I knew what he meant; we’ve been to a few ourselves, like The Epicurean in East Ridge TN or Jim Stalvey’s in Covington GA. Heck, for all that youth-skewing magazines like Garden & Gun have celebrated barbecue in the last few years, I am not sure that any students at Wake Forest are joining the crowd at Hill’s Lexington in Winston-Salem. I went there for breakfast last year and the servers there looked at me like they had never before seen anybody in their forties out of bed that early.
But I started wondering how these restaurants start, and what they look like in the days before all of their patrons are of retirement age, and I’ve got a fairly good candidate in mind. Twenty years from now, in the far-flung future of 2035, the hypno-holo-bloggers who thought-transfer about food will wonder about some of that era’s restaurants which cater to an aging population and will name California Dreaming among their number. This place is really, really popular today with guests in their late thirties to early fifties. They’ll stick with the restaurant as long as it’s around to serve up their reliable comfort food, because they love it and will remain loyal.
This location opened about ten years back, and everything around it that has opened since has skewed younger – a Marlow’s Tavern, a World of Beer, and a Cook Out are getting the Kennesaw State students; Cook Out also gets the younger families along with an Uncle Maddio’s Pizza. I mention this because I can imagine the vibe beginning. From the outside, California Dreaming simply looks like a place where grown-ups go to eat.
I also mention this because, as I said in the story about Cook Out last week, this strip mall has gone nuts in the evenings, with California Dreaming’s four neighbors all drawing huge crowds and overwhelming the parking lot. And you know what the grown-up business does while drivers are circling and circling, looking for anyplace to park? They’ve posted signs in their own gigantic lot that none of their many free spaces are available, even for people wanting to-go orders from Cook Out, and keep a towing company on speed dial. You’re not being at all neighborly, California Dreaming.
California Dreaming is owned by Centraarchy Restaurants and is one of eight brands in their portfolio. Locally, they also manage Joey D’s Oak Room in Dunwoody, New York Prime in Buckhead, and The Tavern at Phipps. There are nine locations of California Dreaming around the southeast, making it the largest of the Centraarchy properties. Three are in Georgia – there’s another one by the Arena at Gwinnett Center and another in Augusta – and one is in Spanish Fort AL, with the other five in South Carolina.
The atmosphere here is casually upscale. They have nice booths and quiet music, and they serve up simple, unfussy comfort food like burgers, pasta, nachos, and steaks. I took the kids one Sunday when Marie had to work, curious what I’d find, and basically it’s like an O’Charley’s or a TGI Friday’s for guests who want the same sort of food but without those places’ loud music and busy menus, and with servers who dress normally, without the 27 pieces of flair. I’m not sure what makes this restaurant “California,” as it seems like it’s pretty standard Americana fare, the sort of place that emphasizes reliability and comfort. It wasn’t a bad lunch at all, and everything was cooked well and tasted good, but it was not the sort of meal that I ever crave.
My curiosity is settled. California Dreaming is the successful older couple whose children recently went off to college, sharing a cul-de-sac with two houses packed full of undergraduates, and two homes with young families, still vibrant and active, but nevertheless wishing everybody would be a lot quieter and ready to call the police if the Friday night parties get too loud. I think that should make it clear.
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