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Small Shopping Centers Can Match the Monster Malls in Style

March 11, 1988|KAREN NEWELL YOUNG | Karen Newell Young is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

The county's small shopping centers sometimes get lost and forgotten in the shadow of the glamorous major malls. But several of these supporting players are worth a visit.

Two good examples--the Marketplace in Irvine and Town & Country in Orange--are tiny centers that make up in style what they lack in size.

The Marketplace, a skip away from UC Irvine on Campus Drive, is a vibrant, splashy spot to browse or nosh away an afternoon. In a modernized Mediterranean motif, arched frames are supported by ribbed columns, pointed roof lines emerge from stucco storefronts and walkways lead shoppers around and through the center toward a fountain in the middle.

Bright-colored trim against stucco walls, creative window designs (Chinese fireworks hang in the window of Metro Sports) and arty signs lend a youthful, festive mood to this small collection of shops, restaurants, Edwards Cinema and the new Improvisation Comedy Club and Restaurant. Outdoor cafe tables and terraces punctuated by palm trees allow plenty of places to soak up the ambiance.

Marketplace stores reflect the tastes of college-age buyers, who thrive on T-shirts, earrings, records and cookies. The center also has a good selection of gift items, socks, posters, sportswear and frozen yogurt.

The most unpredictable merchandise is at Elements, where one can pick up a carrying case for condoms or a security blanket for adults, along with earrings, stationery, books and assorted knickknacks. Browsing at Elements, with James Taylor on the stereo and incense in the air, is vaguely reminiscent of college days long ago--except the university crowd of the early 1970s rarely shopped in workout clothes or bought condom cases.

Another shop, called En-Passant, draws both regulars and curiosity seekers. En-Passant sells wafra: sandwiches made of assorted fillings heated inside waffle-like slabs. Although the spinach, mushroom and cheese variety was rather bland, the clerk insisted that En-Passant has been "very well received" and that the pizza wafra is the most popular. You don't argue with a wafra seller.

Bounded by University Tower (an office building), Edwards Cinema and the Improv, and Chinatown restaurant, the 2-year-old center houses 16 shops and restaurants and is adding a half dozen more. The center, owned by the Irvine Co. and managed and marketed by Donahue Schriber, has 30 spaces (including stores, services, restaurants and offices) open now; when completed, it will have 60 spaces.

Joining Swept Away (mostly T-shirts and other cotton clothes), Spectrum Blue (gifts, earrings), Golden Spoon (mostly yogurt), the Sock Shop, Interfashion (hair salon), Wafra, Famous Amos (cookies), White Mountain Creamery (ice cream, sandwiches), Metro Sports (sportswear), Graphics West Gallery (posters and some original art), Peer Records & Video, Soundquest (stereo equipment) and Ms. DeNoux (sportswear) will be, among others, Factory Fashion Works, Le Diplomat (French bakery), Nassrin's White Rose Skin Care and a swimwear store.

Full-service restaurants now open include Pinky's (a 1950s-style hamburger and malt shop across the parking lot from most of the stores), Hershel's (deli), Chinatown (Chinese food) and Twoheys (hamburgers, salads, spaghetti, chili and onion rings). Tortilla Flats, another full-service restaurant, will open in late spring. Also planned are a Sizzler restaurant, the Oasis nightclub and a pizza shop. Among the open services are an optical shop, a travel agency, a copy center and stationery store, and a real estate office.

With four full-service restaurants, the movie theater and the Improv, there is already plenty to do at night at the Marketplace. And with the stores and lunch counters, it is already a hub during the day. It could still use a bookstore and a variety store, but students' demands will ultimately determine the supply.

A couple of freeways away, Orange Town & Country is a more tranquil and conventional center of about 50 shops and 50 offices. With 100,000 square feet of retail space, Town & Country is small potatoes contrasted with MainPlace/Santa Ana across the street. Attracting customers before MainPlace rose from the ashes of Fashion Square was one thing, surviving with a mega-mall across the street quite another.

Mall manager Nancy Paull said Town & Country had hoped MainPlace would help attract business, but since MainPlace opened last fall, store sales have remained about the same. Town & Country restaurants, however, have been busier, probably with the overflow from MainPlace, she added. Those restaurants include Knott's Country Kitchen, Viking Sub (sandwiches, light lunches and party platters), South of Sante Fe (Southwestern), Ruckus (soup, salad bar and steaks), Louie Louie's (Italian-American) and Chelsea's Choice (frozen yogurt and muffins).

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