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A 5-Star Trend

W. Hollywood Likes What's Up on the Strip

April 14, 1998|GEORGE WHITE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Bob Mandler shifted some tables onto a sidewalk patio at his West Hollywood restaurant in 1983, he started a trend that turned a section of the Sunset Strip into a beacon for the hip outdoor dining set.

Now, 15 years later, it's clear that the benefits of alfresco dining at Chin Chin and other restaurants along the Sunset Plaza shopping district are much broader. After all, large numbers are lured to the plaza's ritzy stores during the dining excursions. Sunset Plaza has also captured the interest of city planners, who are trying to create a see-and-be-seen atmosphere along other sections of Sunset Boulevard to boost retail sales.

For example, the city of West Hollywood is using Sunset Plaza, which stretches more than a block over an area straddling Sunset Plaza Drive, as a model for its development guidelines. The guidelines encourage the construction of new pedestrian-friendly street-scape by requiring developers to install open-space areas such as courtyards and outdoor dining in their new projects.

"People see the energy at Sunset Plaza and developers love it because it gives them a look to shoot for and a clear idea of the business possibilities," said Allyne Winderman, manager of economic development and housing for West Hollywood. "There's tremendous interest in Sunset Plaza as a shopping venue and [development] model."

Winderman said developers are drafting proposals for three new Sunset Boulevard projects, which the city will review soon. Those developers will have to conform to architectural guidelines that encourage the use of marble and limestone and designs that include large store-front windows--a look that can be found along Sunset Plaza.

"There are retailers who would rather be at Sunset Plaza than on Rodeo Drive," said Dick Carter, a retail real estate executive with the Los Angeles-based Beitler Commercial Real Estate. "That section of Sunset is one of the hottest streets in Southern California."

Carter said Sunset Plaza is appealing because it is an architecturally attractive stretch with bright clear storefronts. The street conveys a sense of celebrity and high fashion. Fancy business attire and more casual fashion-forward clothing can be found on plaza store racks and on the customers and diners that patronize the area, he said.

Celebrities, recording industry executives and well-heeled residents from the nearby Hollywood Hills are among the plaza's patrons. They buy handbags at stores such as Delvaux and shop for apparel at stores such as Boulmiche, BCBG, Nicole Miller, Laura Urbanati and Armani Exchange.

"This is a place to people-watch and to be seen," said Scott Fanslow, a manager at Armani Exchange. "It's a hip crowd. The people who shop Sunset Plaza are more fashion-oriented than most shoppers."

The plaza's retail tenant mix is the responsibility of Francis S. Montgomery, president of Montgomery Management and scion of a family that has owned that stretch of Sunset for more than 100 years.

Montgomery said the keys to success at Sunset Plaza are the stylish retail mix, free parking and sidewalk dining.

Some of the restaurants on or near the strip are among the best known in the Southland. Le Dome and Cafe Med are within the plaza stretch and Spago is near the area.

The menus tend to be pricey at plaza restaurants, but Chin Chin built its success by offering atmosphere as well as lower prices--an average meal is $11--said Mandler, Chin Chin's president, who has opened seven other restaurants since his first in 1983. Chin Chin International most recently expanded by opening a restaurant in Beverly Hills.

The chain, which offers Chinese cuisine, is known for its chicken salad, pot stickers and noodle dishes. However, the Sunset Plaza Chin Chin is most notable for its sidewalk crowds.

"Our outdoor dining area is still very popular after all these years," Mandler said. "Some people will wait a half-hour for an outdoor seat even if there's immediate seating inside."

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George White can be reached via e-mail at george.white@latimes.com

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