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Incredible shrinking restaurant scene

Fifteen places close in a matter of months. And autumn's usual flurry of openings? Not this year.

October 05, 2005|Corie Brown | Times Staff Writer

IN one Los Angeles restaurant after another, the lights have gone out. With more than a dozen ambitious dining spots failing during the last two months, it's clear: L.A.'s restaurant scene is going through a shakeout.

The particulars of each closing read like a litany of the standard restaurant woes: warring partners, failed concepts, lackluster food and escalating costs. Only now the problem is being exacerbated by worsening traffic and an economy that is softer than generally acknowledged.

Alex and Opaline had been gone for more than a year when, in August, Wolfgang Puck announced he was closing his Malibu restaurant, Granita; Tim Goodell decided not to reopen his Newport Beach flagship, Aubergine; and EM Bistro, on Beverly Boulevard near La Cienega, locked its doors. By the end of the month, Naya in Pasadena had closed, as had the critically acclaimed Beverly Hills tofu palace, Umenohana. In September, Mix and Citrine in West Hollywood, Four Oaks in Bel-Air and Halie in Pasadena were shuttered.

Add to that Amuse Cafe in Venice, which closed this summer, along with Rika on the Sunset Strip (Central closed in May), Luce in Beverly Hills and Casa Antigua on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 11, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Four Oaks co-owner -- An article in Wednesday's Food section about restaurant closures misspelled the last name of Four Oaks co-owner Larry Braun, a Los Angeles attorney, as Brown.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 12, 2005 Home Edition Food Part F Page 3 Features Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Four Oaks co-owner -- An article last Wednesday about restaurant closures misspelled the last name of Four Oaks co-owner Larry Braun, a Los Angeles attorney, as Brown.

And then there is Le Dome. After ordering the Hollywood haunt closed a week ago, owner Ronald Tutor says he "had a change of heart" and is keeping the stove lit even though the "For Sale" sign remains in the front window.

"We are all fighting for the same 500 people who regularly go out to dinner in Los Angeles," says Caroline Styne, co-owner of Lucques and A.O.C. with chef Suzanne Goin. "Whenever a new restaurant opens, we feel it. Then there is a shakeout, and business bounces back."

To battle the slowdown, Ludovic Lefebvre is overhauling Bastide's menu. His wacky creations are being sidelined, served only to gastronomic adventurers who reserve the chef's dining room. For everyone else, it's much more classic French cooking, albeit with Lefebvre's bold flavors. At Norman's on Sunset Boulevard, they hope filling the air with the succulent smells of an outdoor pig roast on Friday nights will bring in the business.


More dramatic than usual

IT almost seems as though there's a law of limited capacity at work in L.A.: Whenever a clutch of new restaurants opens, as many existing ones will eventually close. Two years ago there was a flurry of excitement, with Bastide, Angelini Osteria, A.O.C., Alex, Jar, Paladar, EM Bistro, Sona, Table 8, Grace, Opaline, Citrine, Dolce and Cinch opening.

But this year, the inevitable closings seem more dramatic than usual. In part that's because while most autumns bring a bevy of new restaurants, this season has been flat for significant openings: Wilshire opened in Santa Monica, and that's about it. (The end of the summer brought Sterling Steakhouse in Hollywood, Mastro's Ocean Club in Newport Coast and Restaurant 162' at the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel. The highly anticipated new joint venture from Mario Batali and Nancy Silverton has been delayed until winter; Wolfgang Puck's steakhouse at the Regent Beverly Wilshire has been delayed until March.)

At L.A.'s most popular restaurants, such as Lucques and Campanile, business is brisk, thanks to the reduced competition. Patina Group, including the collection of Pinot restaurants led by the flagship Patina in Disney Hall, just had its best month since 9/11, says Joachim Splichal. (The laggard, Pinot Hollywood, has been closed for a top-to-bottom remodel.)

"L.A. is a very tough restaurant town," says Splichal. "You need regulars who come once a month. We've never had the conventions that drive the restaurant business in San Francisco, New York and Chicago."

It's tough but potentially rewarding, says Robert Sutcliffe, the lawyer who has handled the private financing for Splichal's restaurants as well as many others. There have never been so many investors lined up to back new restaurants, he says. Sutcliffe claims to have deals in place to finance 11 new restaurants, several of which are million-dollar projects.

Sutcliffe's latest deal, the financing for Providence, the new seafood restaurant from chef Michael Cimarusti in the old Patina space on Melrose, came together in a five-week flash, he says. "I had to send $300,000 back to investors. We only needed $1.4 million, and investors oversubscribed."

Providence's general manager Donato Poto says the closings are a "dark cloud" hanging over the city. "In general, there are worries," he says. "Probably the economy isn't as good as people think."

Ticking through the list of restaurants that have closed, Poto says, is a reminder of how unforgiving L.A. can be. "People go after the new thing. If you don't give them the right reason to come back the third and fourth time, they don't."

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