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Restaurateurs Tell What's Cooking

January 03, 1991|BEVERLY BUSH SMITH

Considering today's soft economy, what lies ahead in 1991 for Orange County restaurants? For some clues, we asked several restaurateurs to gaze into their crystal balls:

Bob Roubian, owner of the Crab Cooker in Newport Beach, sees restaurants that are "good and fair" doing an even better business than before the recession. "Rip-off places" will be in trouble, he says. "People are looking for an honest place to go. They go for authenticity, consistency, simplicity. And they're not as ignorant as some people think."

Restaurants "will succeed in the current environment through value and quality," agrees Mike Casey. He is president and CEO of El Torito Restaurants (which include the specialty restaurants Chanteclair, Las Brisas, the El Torito Grill chain, Remick's, Player's and Caliente).

And George Kookootsedes, general manager of John Dominis in Newport Beach, echoes that theory. "Value perception is the most important factor to consumers today. Even at high-end restaurants like John Dominis, we need our patrons to feel that they are getting value for their dollar."

"Eating out is a luxury and an area people look at first in times of recession," points out Hassan Essayli, owner of Monique's in south Laguna Beach. "Thus, business is very soft." To cope, he feels many restaurants will have to cut expenses, hopefully not by reducing food quality, but by looking to other variables, such as labor and ambience.

Kenneth Golden, who will open Bay Colony in mid-February in Newport Beach, believes it's time for a return to basics. "Cooking became overly complicated and chi-chi," he says. "Now we're back to what they call 'boy food' in Hollywood: pot roasts, turkey croquettes." This, plus eastern seafood, is what he plans to serve in his restaurant. Golden believes that in a recession, impulse fast-food purveyors will be hurt: People won't pick up eight hamburgers for dinner on the way home. But with tightening expense accounts, he sees high-price restaurants hit as well. "People need a lift" through dining out, he says, but medium prices are key.

Another new place on the horizon is Koo Koo Roo, a counter-service restaurant that will serve healthy barbecued skinless chicken and marinated vegetable side dishes in Tustin. Russel J. Ruscigno, senior vice president of the Los Angeles-based corporation, which researched the market for eight years, believes that "the consumer has become more sophisticated in taste, nutrition and value. And we think that the restaurateurs who are going to succeed in the 1990s are going to address those three issues."

Pascal Olhats of Pascal in Newport Beach foresees customers "wanting to make it really count" when dining out. They'll be looking for quality and value, he says, with freshness being key.

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