The dessert goes to Disney
At the same time, the cake and its liquid center began to cement its place as the romantic dessert of choice. In a Lucky Peach article, food writer Rachel Khong theorized, "These cakes tend to appear on the menus of pricier restaurants, and pricier restaurants tend to cater to couples." The fact that chocolate -- an ingredient the dessert is anything but short on -- is considered by many to be an aphrodisiac is also germane.
Like with most fine-dining trends, the cake eventually trickled down to a more affordable price point, well on its way to Big Mac-ian levels of commodification. The first stop? Disney World.
The molten cakes arrived to the world's most popular theme park in 1997, but weren't initially sold alongside Mickey Mouse ice cream bars and churros. They could only be accessed by visiting the park's pricier (and more upscale) establishments like the Flying Fish, a reservation-only restaurant located inside Disney's Coney Island-themed resort. It wasn't until 2002 that the chocolate lava cake would be served on paper plates instead of fancy porcelain at Disney's Epcot Center.
A year after the cake made it Disney debut, it surfaced in the casual-chain world. Chili's added the Molten Chocolate Cake to its menu in 1998, and nothing, not even Y2K, could quell demand. A spokesperson for the chain says that Chili's has never taken the cake off of its menu in the nearly 20 years since it sold the first one. The 1,200-calorie sugar-bomb is the restaurant's best-selling dessert; on average, the chain goes through 11,500 cakes per day -- that's nearly 4.2 million cakes per year. Given the popularity of the chocolate cake, Chili's now serves a salted caramel version, too.
Other chains jumped on the lava cake bandwagon around the same time: Applebee's started selling (and still sells) its Triple Chocolate Meltdown, and California Pizza Kitchen slapped the Molten Chocolate Lava Cake on its menu. In 2004, the dessert completed its trajectory from fine-dining phenomenon to plebeian pastry when Walmart started hawking versions of the cake in its frozen aisle.