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A Sad Sunset

Landmark Seaside Restaurant Is Preparing to Close by the End of the Year

October 28, 1997|TRACY JOHNSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When the sun dips below the horizon, pink and orange hues bathe the sky above Millie Riera's Seafood Grotto in Redondo Beach. A pack of dolphins leaps across Santa Monica Bay. Dusk's shadows fall on the million-dollar mansions dotting the Palos Verdes Peninsula. A kayaker splashes in the Pacific blue, and walkers, joggers and strollers pass by on the Strand as twilight lingers.

For more than half a century, diners drank in this view from a local landmark that is as much an institution in Redondo Beach as the old Chasen's was in Hollywood. But by the end of the year the famous seaside restaurant will join the ranks of dozens of other bygone establishments when the sun sets on Millie's forever.

Millie's has long been a place where the passing of life has been memorialized and birth has been celebrated. As this era comes to a close, old-timers who came for the power lunches and hobnobbers who came for the swank sundown suppers are returning to relive the memories they made at Millie's.

"The wedding rehearsals and baby showers that have been part of our customers' lives have become a part of ours," said a teary-eyed Monica Riera Turner, Millie's daughter and co-owner of the restaurant. "I want to grab every moment I can until they're gone."

Millie Riera's Seafood Grotto was born on a dream. Each Sunday when Joe Riera and his wife, Millie, took their drive around the Palos Verdes Peninsula they would stop at a sand dune on the Esplanade and look out at the ocean.

Joe vowed to open a seafood restaurant on that spot, and at the end of World War II his vision came true. The Vista del Mar Seafood Grotto opened on Labor Day 1946 with a million-dollar view and a menu carrying nothing over $1.95.

The seaside spot soon made a name for itself. Regulars came for the huge portions of crab louie with gobs of dressing. Show-biz hotshots, such as Rita Hayworth and the Andrews Sisters, came for the view at the only restaurant on the waterfront Esplanade.

Business was booming when Joe Riera died of a heart attack a decade later. Millie took over the business and renamed it. She also hired loyal employees like Pedro Valdivia, who started as a dishwasher 30 years ago and became her chef in 1974, and bartender Max Carrillo, a 20-year worker.

Thousands of patrons wined and dined at the restaurant back in its heyday, but in the early 1980s, business slumped. The restaurant, then run by a relative, piled up huge bills.

Riera Turner took over in 1982 and just as the debt started to clear, she said, the aerospace industry--which provided lots of business--crashed.

Though the restaurant has been scraping by for years, Riera Turner said she was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization in March. She had high hopes of giving the restaurant a fresh look when it turned 50 last fall, she said, but profits were too small to keep the grotto afloat. Now the beachfront spot that has been Millie's all these years will be bulldozed to make way for a luxury condominium complex.

"This has been such a hard decision, but it's been such a struggle," said Riera Turner, whose family owns the land. "We're all very sad, but no one else should die over this restaurant."

The happiest and saddest of times are celebrated around food.

Over the years the upscale restaurant has hosted hundreds of special occasions: sunset weddings, baby showers, retirement parties, rehearsal dinners. Riera Turner even helped a pregnant woman get to the hospital after her water broke in the restaurant.

Michael Doran remembers how he proposed to his wife, Claudia, on her birthday eight years ago at Millie's. He waited until dusk to pop the question and recently came back with his wife to relive the happy moment one last time when they heard the sunsets were about to fade away.

"This has always been such a special place," Doran said, teasing his wife about the messy king crab she dared to order at Millie's now that they had tied the knot. "We had to come back one last time."

To many customers, Millie's is like home. Between bites of his beef sandwich, Bud Mirassou reminisced about when his children were born back in the 1950s and how he came to Millie's to share the good news and was congratulated with a drink on the house.

Mirassou was a regular at Millie's, bringing his clients to the restaurant for lunch and his family for birthdays and anniversaries. He still does, only now he has the company of his son John, with whom he runs an asset protection business nearby.

"Millie's is a treasure," said Mirassou, who plans to eat as many lunches as he can at Millie's before it closes for good. "This place is a Redondo Beach tradition, it's part of our history. I hate to see it go."

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