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DRAWING POWER : Area restaurants and hotels maintain reservations about business gains

September 21, 1986|BRUCE HOROVITZ | Bruce Horovitz is a Times staff writer .

It began with a drizzle.

Guests dining on the patio at John Pohl's Bistro near the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa looked up and saw a black sky where moments earlier there had been blue. Then the rains came. Patrons began to rush inside the restaurant--and worry.

After all, many of the dinner guests had tickets to the 8 p.m. play at the South Coast Repertory Theatre. In the downpour, however, few could make it to their cars without getting soaked. The flash storm threatened to unravel the threads on their Christian Dior evening gowns and Bill Blass suits.

So, Pohl, owner of the 4-year-old restaurant, improvised. Dressed in his chef's uniform, he pulled the restaurant's catering van around to the front of the establishment, piled the guests in and personally drove them to the theater.

With the opening of the Performing Arts Center, few area merchants--including Pohl himself--expect to regularly provide such personalized service for customers. But the center will still affect the operations of many area restaurants and hotels--from the services they will offer customers to the items on their menus. (There are no plans for a restaurant in the center.)

What's surprising, however, is that most area restaurant owners and hotel executives are downplaying the effect that the center might have on their businesses. "I just don't want it to be like the Olympics, when we were expecting a big boom and nothing happened," says Antonello Cagnolo, owner of Antonello Ristorante, the lavish Italian restaurant in South Coast Village.

Like many area restaurateurs, Cagnolo will offer a pre-theater menu--generally a lighter meal at a fixed, early-bird price. But he is not making many major changes to prepare for the center's opening.

"There will be lots of new people coming to the area," Cagnolo says, "but I don't want to get caught dreaming with my eyes open."

At the nearby Bistro, John Pohl is more optimistic. The 95-seat restaurant serves about 35 dinners nightly. Pohl hopes that figure will double to 70 on nights of performances at the center.

"The restaurant business throughout the entire area should improve," Pohl says. "After all, the traffic gridlock will leave some people walking around looking for places to go."

Pohl says he will concentrate on the after-theater crowd by offering items such as omelets and light desserts.

Also near the center, Cafe Casino's business on show nights might improve by 20%, says Bernard Carteron, regional manager for the chain that operates the restaurant. Cafe Casino already has a dinner-and-show arrangement with the South Coast Repertory and hopes to strike up similar deals with the Performing Arts Center, Carteron says.

Meanwhile, Pronto Ristorante at South Coast Plaza will play wait-and-see.

"If a few thousand extra people come to the area for a show, surely some of them will come to eat here," says John Lopes, general manager of the 200-seat restaurant. "But we are not counting on big increases. We'll know better a few months after the center opens."

Lopes says the restaurant may eventually adjust its hours, menu and personnel to the center, "but I'm not a big chain operation, so I can make those changes in a few weeks, unlike big restaurants that have to plan months in advance."

But restaurant owners are not the only ones watching the center with eager eyes--so are area hotel executives.

The Westin South Coast Plaza hotel, for example, has already booked dozens of banquets that revolve around the center. "It will bring us thousands of dollars in additional revenues," says Bob Seddelmeyer, general manager at the 396-room hotel.

With the center open, the hotel will also lengthen the operating hours of its bar and restaurant, Seddelmeyer says. "That will be determined by demand."

And the hotel is having preliminary discussions with the center about overnight package deals that would assure guests prime theater tickets.

Westin executives, however, are not expecting great numbers of theatergoers from Los Angeles and San Diego to stay overnight at the hotel. But they do anticipate a moderate increase because of the hotel's proximity to the center.

"Orange County has too many hotels right now. We just hope this gives us some type of competitive advantage," Seddelmeyer says.

Indeed, the Westin will find new competition from the Beverly Heritage Hotel, a $20-million, 238-room hotel that is scheduled to open in October within eyeshot of the center.

"The Performing Arts Center was one of the key factors in our selection of this site," says Gerald M. Kadish, president of the hotel division of Northview Corp., which will operate the hotel.

"We're not counting on a major segment of business directly tied to the center," Kadish says, "but the center will surely help elevate the level of business in the entire area."

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