COSTA MESA — It is, without a doubt, the Tiffany's of shopping malls. In fact, Tiffany & Co. is a tenant.
But don't use the M word and make the mistake of referring to South Coast Plaza as a mere mall.
The preferred terms here are gateway retail destination or America's premiere retail center. The latter was conferred on South Coast Plaza by American Airlines and the Walt Disney Travel Co. when the firms added the shopping center as a destination on their package tours--along with such rival tourist spots as Disneyland, the San Diego Zoo and Universal Studios. (All of which South Coast Plaza outranks in terms of numbers of visitors, with an estimated 18 million "guests" annually.)
California's office of tourism even thought enough of the place to name it one of the state's "20 Fun Spots."
But whether South Coast Plaza should be considered a mall, retail center or tourist attraction is immaterial. Die-hard shoppers have their own term for it: the ultimate.
Indeed, many shopping connoisseurs routinely make 45-mile pilgrimages to South Coast Plaza from Los Angeles or 60-mile treks from San Diego to get there.
No wonder. The center may not be California's largest mall (that honor belongs to Torrance's Del Amo Fashion Center), but it is surely the ritziest, featuring many shops more closely identified with Rodeo Drive or 5th Avenue.
Among the tenants are Cartier, Mark Cross, Polo/Ralph Lauren, Yves Saint Laurent, Rive Gauche, Burberry's, Rizzoli, Gucci, Bally's of Switzerland, Louis Vuitton, Barneys New York (which includes a Hermes department), FAO Schwarz, Esprit, George Jensen, Orrefors, Porsche Design, Laura Ashley, Alfred Dunhill, Bruno Magli, Fila, Boehm Porcelain Gallery, Descamps, Abercrombie & Fitch, Jessica McClintock and Koala Blue. Plus, the Laguna Museum of Art has a branch there.
Chanel, the current candidate for most-imitated retailer in the world, opened a store in South Coast Plaza earlier this week. Also scheduled to open soon are a Calvin Klein store, a Liz Claiborne boutique and a branch of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art gift shop.
This is the place to see it all. For along with such specialty shops, there are eight department stores: I. Magnin, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom, Robinson's, Bullock's, The Broadway, May Co. and Sears. The total number of stores exceed 300, including such familiar standbys as The Limited and The Gap.
The center's stores are all located in or near one of three shopping "courts" (the Carousel Court, named for its replica of a turn-of-the-century carousel; the Jewel Court, which features a stained glass dome with 7,600 pieces of glass, and the Crystal Court, the fanciest area of all with marble floors, a 75-foot-tiered rotunda and a spectacular, modern fountain in which water moves from outside to inside the building. By itself, the Crystal Court, which is separate and located across the street from the Carousel and Jewel courts, is larger than many shopping malls).
Altogether, the South Coast Plaza's retail section covers more than 10 acres. Indeed, the center is so big and diversified that some retailers (Esprit, for example) have even taken out two stores.
High-end goods are sold in abundance. (A recent mall-sponsored survey showed that the average household income of the South Coast Plaza shopper is $62,000 a year.) But there are still plenty of offerings from stores such as Sears and such restaurants as McDonald's (though many mass retailers have left the center in the wake of so many upscale tenants).
Like most malls, South Coast Plaza also contains a de rigueur collection of movie theaters. But unlike most other malls, the theaters are housed separately--in the nearby South Coast Plaza Village and South Coast Plaza Town Center. That's so movie lines will not interfere with shoppers.
The Town Center also includes high-rise office buildings, a 400-room hotel, the South Coast Repertory Company and the noted Orange County Performing Arts Center, which has hosted the New York City Ballet, the American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Opera.
Outside, there's a sculpture collection including works by Moore, Calder, Miro, Rickey and Dubuffet.
And don't miss the impressive, 1.6-acre garden, "California Scenario" by sculptor Isamu Noguchi. With its "Forest Walk," "Desert Land" and bubbling stream areas, it is regarded by some as the state's most important outdoor garden open to the public.
All considered, South Coast Plaza is not a bad little package, especially when you consider that less than 25 years ago the whole place was nothing but a lima bean field. It was developed in 1966 by C. J. Segerstrom & Sons.
It's hard to find shoppers with many complaints about South Coast Plaza, but when you do they're likely to bemoan the fact that the place can get so crowded you can spend 10 minutes just getting out of the parking lot. And those who prefer the larger size of the Beverly Hills branches of Saks Fifth Avenue and I. Magnin say they always feel like they're missing something in those retailers' smaller South Coast Plaza stores.
The quibbles are small, however, when you consider that the persnickety shoppers who raise them are the same shoppers who respectfully refer to the center as "South Coast Mecca."
South Coast Plaza is located at the interchange of the San Diego Freeway and Bristol Street in Costa Mesa, about 45 miles south of Los Angeles and 60 miles north of San Diego. It is open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily except weekends. Saturday hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday hours are from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.