In a move that will force changes--and probably some headaches--at many of Los Angeles' most exclusive restaurants, the City Council on Wednesday gave final approval to a law requiring restaurants with 50 or more seats to designate half of their service area for nonsmokers.
The ordinance, passed on a 13-2 vote and expected to be approved by Mayor Tom Bradley, should take effect in about a month. It will bring Los Angeles into a group of more than 100 municipalities in California and more than 300 in the United States that have passed laws regulating smoking in restaurants.
The law also bans smoking in service lines at institutions such as banks, in areas of schools where children are present and in private child-care facilities. Smoking would also be prohibited in enclosed sporting arenas, but would be permitted in the lobbies.
The nation's most publicized law against smoking in restaurants was passed last spring by Beverly Hills, which became only the second city to completely ban it. After complaints from restaurant owners, the Beverly Hills City Council last summer weakened the law to allow restaurants to set up smoking sections for up to 50% of their customers. Restaurants with more than 50 seats must install ventilation systems to prevent smoke from entering nonsmoking areas.
Over the years, as pressure from anti-smoking groups mounted, many chain restaurants have established nonsmoking sections. However, many high-priced restaurants have ignored that trend, putting the burden on the patron to request a table that is more secluded or adjacent to other nonsmokers.
The nonsmoking trend has not infiltrated exclusive restaurants because patrons are often more interested in their table's proximity to the rich and famous than to smokeless air, according to observers of the Los Angeles restaurant scene. For example, at Le Dome on Sunset Boulevard, owner Michel Yhuelo estimates that only about 5% of his customers ask to be segregated from smokers.
Some restaurant managers worried Wednesday that it will be harder to make effective use of all seats and that customers who have set their minds on smoking or on sitting in a smokeless section could face longer waits. Others cringed at the thought of having to tell long-time customers that a favorite table was now off limits because it was part of the nonsmoking section.
"Oh my God," said Franco Meglio, maitre d' of Jimmy's, an expensive, glittery restaurant in Century City when a reporter informed him about the City Council vote. "I wish this would never have passed.
"We have 250 seats. We have to have 125 seats for nonsmokers? Oh, shoot. That will be very tough on us. It is going to be my biggest headache. We cater to the best clientele in the world. Everybody smokes. They like to smoke that cigar. They have a cognac; they like to have a cigar."
Other restaurant managers and operators reacted with more resignation, aware that the City Council had voted preliminary approval of the law last April after failing by only one vote to approve a total ban.
Restaurant executives said they were also aware that the Los Angeles law is merely the latest victory for the growing national movement against so-called "side-stream smoke." Last year Surgeon General C. Everett Koop issued a formal warning against the danger nonsmokers face from such smoke.
"I'm not surprised by it at all," said William Moyles, general manager of Harry's Bar, also in Century City, which has two informal non-smoking areas available to patrons who request them.
Moyles said he would have preferred the city enact a looser law, like the one adopted by San Francisco supervisors last June, requiring restaurants to offer nonsmoking areas to customers on demand but not forcing them to set aside nonsmoking sections.
'Little More Cosmopolitan'
The difference between the two approaches, Moyles said, was evidence that San Francisco is "a little more cosmopolitan town."
A number of restaurants have already made concessions to nonsmokers.
Mary Atkinson, general manager of Orleans, a popular New Orleans-style restaurant in West Los Angeles, said her restaurant voluntarily set up a nonsmoking section a month ago as a result of customer requests. However, it will have to be enlarged to conform to the ordinance.
Mike Cardenas, manager of Teru Sushi, a Japanese restaurant in Studio City, said the restaurant's owners--who, he noted, are not Japanese--have banned smoking at the 20-seat sushi bar, a policy that "once in a blue moon" draws criticism from patrons.
"But it's necessary," Cardenas said. "It keeps the restaurant clean."
The new restrictions do not require restaurants to erect any barriers. However, posted signs would be needed. Restaurant patrons must also be asked if they wish to be seated in a smoking or non-smoking section.
The council's action followed several earlier smoking prohibitions, each championed by Councilman Marvin Braude.