By Frank Sabatini Jr.
The last thing that would ever lure me into the globally popular Sugar Factory American Brasserie would be the celebrities who lucratively lend their names to the place. Though for many, all it takes is for members of the Kardashian family or rappers like Pitbull and Nick Cannon to occasionally show up, and such establishments soar to the top of people’s bucket lists.
I was drawn instead by the prospect of seeing a matinee movie in the lap of luxury, and then washing down some hearty American-style fare with a cold milkshake — all within a single address.
Which led me precisely to 701 Fifth Ave. in the Gaslamp Quarter. It’s where TCL Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles opened a massive complex last year housing an eight-screen cineplex gives you all the amenities of flying first class on an international flight. For a price, of course.
On the ground floor is a bright and spacious candy shop that leads into the quasi-glitzy Sugar Factory, the anchor tenant of Las Vegas origin that has expanded to 25 cities worldwide.
The restaurant is where you can score colorful cocktails served in big, bulbous goblets, outrageous burgers stacked dramatically high, and “insane” milkshakes festooned with candies and other confections. Your indulgences take place among a brand-oriented crowd serviced by efficient wait staffers seemingly trained to not pull any disappearing acts.
My midday outing kicked off upstairs in the Theatre Box with Jordan Peele’s new horror film “Us.” Because I’m not a frequent moviegoer, at least for mainstream films, the luxury-cinema concept feels like a forbidden pleasure. Here, in these exceptionally acoustic theaters, a separate kitchen is utilized for making you everything from appetizers and salads to sushi rolls, burgers, sandwiches and Sugar Factory’s swooped-up desserts. It’s basically an abbreviated menu of the brasserie.
I coyly hit the service button first for malt balls. Then pressed it again 30 minutes later for a basket of jalapeno-cheddar popcorn, which even to this heavyweight of spicy foods was too stinging.
As for the movie — about a vacationing family terrorized by zombie versions of themselves — I found its direction formulaic and contrived. Had it not been for my ultra-comfy recliner seat, I would have never made it to the film’s bloody, overcooked ending.
(Note to the budget-minded: All movies at Theatre Box on Tuesdays are only $5 per person. Otherwise they’re between $15 and $18.)
The vibe turned considerably more cheerful when I descended into the Sugar Factory. Smartphone cameras were used rapid-fire. Oblong plates of “rainbow” beef sliders showing off their dyed buns occupied several tables. And a nearby party of eight spooned into a “King Kong” sundae, an eye-popping $99 creation with donuts and candy affixed to it.
A bowl of salty French onion soup was my mediocre prelude to two pleasing dishes, most of which I had already figured on taking home as leftovers for dinner that night.
Little did I know the triple-decker house club alone could have sustained me for three subsequent meals. Each quarter of it resembled a whole sandwich with their distended, colorful layers of good-quality turkey breast, crisp bacon, romaine lettuce, ripe tomatoes, cheddar, Provolone and avocado. Buried somewhere inside were dill pickles and tasty herbed mayonnaise.
The fish and chips I also ordered were the best I’ve had in a long time. Made with cod, the batter was light and clung evenly to the fillets, and the meat inside was moist and fluffy. It’s one of the few no-frills dishes on the menu, along with fettuccine Alfredo, spaghetti and meatballs, and steak frites, which holds great temptation because it features prime beef roasted in garlic and thyme.
Then came the milkshake, a Nutella-banana spectacle served in a tall glass coated on the outside with chocolate and rainbow sprinkles. Sorry Scott Disick (ex-boyfriend of Kourtney Kardashian, who promoted Sugar Factory’s San Diego debut last year), you don’t awaken my sweet tooth like this thing did. In fact, all of the milkshakes and sundaes here are cause for excitement, and would surely attract flocks of consumers on their own without television personalities and musicians dropping in to be photographed sucking on straws and lollipops.
But hey, if vicarious stardom is your fantasy, the Sugar Factory goes above and beyond to accommodate that. In a more classic way, so does Theatre Box, which greets with hallway photographs of movie stars dipping their hands and feet in wet cement in front of Mann’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at email@example.com.