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Restaurant Ruckus Leaves Bad Taste in Montebello

Lawsuit: Plans for stylish eatery dissolved in legal fight. A trial will sort out claims over a lease, use of a celebrity's name and a forgivable city loan to a local businessman.

January 27, 2002|JOSE CARDENAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

All parties held high hopes for the upscale restaurant planned for a Montebello hilltop.

For Latino recording superstar Juan Gabriel and his Pico Rivera-based promoter, the Noa Noa restaurant was to be the flagship in a first-of-its-kind national chain--the Latin equivalent of the Hard Rock Cafes.

More than two years later, there is no Noa Noa. Instead, litigation pits Ralph Hauser III--Gabriel's promoter--against Henry Attina, the Montebello restaurateur who was to build Noa Noa on his property.

The embittered relationships also involve the Montebello City Council, which gave Attina a loan to bring the project to town.

For Attina, an established businessman with a lengthy relationship with council members and city staff, it was a chance to develop his land with generous help from the city.

The council wanted Noa Noa--or a comparable establishment--to open in its town badly enough to give Attina a $1.06-million loan he did not have to repay if he met certain conditions.

The council approved the loan over the objections of a few Montebello residents who said the transaction was funding a businessman with city connections.

Attina did build a facility he intends to lease partly as a restaurant. But Noa Noa--which made entertainment news locally and in Gabriel's native Mexico when it was announced--is all but history.

In a trial scheduled to begin Monday in Los Angeles Superior Court, a complaint by Hauser says he was misled by Attina about the features the restaurant would contain--forcing him to rescind a lease he had signed.

Hauser has also said his singing star's name, without Hauser's knowledge, was opportunistically used by Attina and the City Council in granting public funds.

"Two people have been had," Hauser said in an interview. "The city of Montebello and my artist."

A cross complaint by Attina seeks to hold Hauser financially accountable for signing a lease that Attina claims both parties repeatedly revised.

After litigation began, Hauser wrote a letter to the media criticizing the council for giving Attina what he said was a gift of public funds for a project that has not been delivered.

Montebello City Council members--who did not respond to requests for interviews--wrote Hauser back.

They defended Attina as a respected longtime businessman. They said Hauser's letter was erroneous and an attempt to litigate in the media.

"Let me reassure you," City Atty. Arnold Alvarez-Glasman wrote to Hauser, "the manner in which you do business is not welcomed in the city of Montebello."

The idea for Noa Noa was much more noble.

Hauser and Gabriel--who owns a Malibu estate--wanted to open it as a tribute to the entertainer's humble origins.

Gabriel's story includes an orphanage in Mexico where his mother, unable to feed him, left him at age 4. They later reunited.

As a teenager, one of his first singing gigs was at a club called El Noa Noa. Later, he recorded a song and made a movie by the same name that helped make him internationally famous.

In the United States, his yearly October concerts at the Universal Amphitheatre routinely sell out.

The Montebello Noa Noa was to bring to town Latin American stars and media to cover news conferences.

Other celebrities who wanted to invest in Noa Noa were Mexican singing stars Vicente and Alejandro Fernandez and Ana Gabriel, Hauser said.

When Hauser drove past a lot in the Montebello Town Square, the site at the western edge of the San Gabriel Valley seemed ideal.

The owner was Attina.

Attina's company, Prime Cut Inc., for years has operated a restaurant now called Tortillas in another part of town.

And over the years, he had nurtured relationships with a string of council members.

Contributions by Attina and his company to council members' campaigns have included cash donations, food for campaign events and hosting fund-raisers at his restaurant.

Attina has obtained public funding in the past from the Montebello and South Gate city councils to build senior-citizen housing.

The Montebello council's effort to bring a classy restaurant to town dates to the early 1990s.

Back then, as part of a deal with developer Alexander Haagen to build the Montebello Town Square, the city required that a restaurant be included.

Haagen sold 40,000 square feet in the mall to Attina, according to city documents.

By early 1999, Attina and Hauser had met.

Attina didn't know much about Latin music. In his deposition for the current litigation, he recalled a conversation with a real estate broker: "He said, 'I have somebody here that is very famous, and blah, blah, blah, and this and that, in the music industry.' "

By that fall, Attina had talked individually with at least four council members--Kathy Salazar, Ed Vasquez, Mary Anne Saucedo and William Molinari--and decided that he could get a forgivable loan.

The council--acting as the Community Redevelopment Agency--required that Attina produce a signed lease with "Juan Gabriel's Noa Noa" or a comparable restaurant before approving the loan.

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