Bottega Louie seems too good to be true. And maybe it is. A palatial restaurant/gourmet market/patisserie opens downtown-- a marvel of white marble, brass trim and floor-to-ceiling windows that's aswarm with smiling servers. One look at all those macarons at the pastry counter, and you can almost imagine a world without the reverberations of a subprime credit crisis.
Yet not all is springing up roses and viennoiserie at the corner of 7th Street and Grand Avenue in downtown L.A. Bottega Louie is on the ground floor of the Brockman Building, below 11 floors of empty condos, whose developer has declared bankruptcy. It's a case study in the spillover optimism that still permeates downtown, locked in a brutal face-off with current financial realities.
As Bottega Louie's owners see it, their 10,000-square-foot paean to the good life is more than the marble and brass with which it was meticulously constructed. They've got their sights set on building "a lifestyle-enhancement brand" -- a high-end, mid-priced restaurant and market in one, with several locations in L.A. and beyond, says Bottega Louie co-owner and President Daniel Flores.
It's a production
No detail has been overlooked. More than three years in the making, Bottega Louie has 20-foot ceilings, more than 2,000 feet of brass millwork, marble-tiled floors, custom deli cases and tables, and about 200 employees. The kitchen handles 600 recipes for the Italian menu and the prepared dishes for the market. The bakers turn out 800 pastries a day; stacks of pastel boxes tied with silk ribbon decorate the windows along Grand Avenue.
There's a full bar, a counter devoted to 20 kinds of breads, a brick oven churning out pizzas and a carving station. A bevy of managers stroll the floors; at times it takes three hostesses -- armed with a laminated map of the tables and stationed at a gilt Baroque-style, curve-legged console in the middle of the restaurant -- to greet and seat patrons.
One customer was overheard saying, "It's like the Taj Mahal in here" -- that is, if the Taj Mahal had sweeping bare-white walls with French moldings and Regency touches.
But the week before Bottega Louie opened April 6, the company that developed the loft-style condos above it filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, and the building faces foreclosure. And it's not the only bankruptcy on 7th Street; the nearby luxury condo project at the Roosevelt Lofts building is financially strapped too and stands empty. Roosevelt Lofts LLC filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection two weeks ago.
Flores says a foreclosure wouldn't affect Bottega Louie and that the team is undeterred. "We only stand to gain when these units are eventually filled," he says. "The building will ultimately end up in the right hands."
Already, droves of downtown office workers -- about 450,000 people work downtown, according to the Downtown Business Improvement District -- are showing up for lunch at Bottega Louie.
Optimism on 7th
Plenty of others are banking on 7th Street.
Walgreen Co. has just leased a 16,100-square-foot retail space at the corner of 7th and Hope streets. A sign on the same block says, "Cefiore Italian Gelato Coming Soon." In the building next to Bottega Louie, Sandella's -- a chain of fast-casual restaurants featuring pizza-like flatbreads -- is planning to move in. Across the street from Bottega Louie, there's Seven Grand, the whiskey bar from Cedd Moses' 213 group, and (as well as a 7-Eleven).
Bullish real estate brokers are still calling it the "7th Street renaissance." Meanwhile, plenty of "for lease" signs still hang in windows.
High hopes were pinned on the Beaux Arts Brockman Building when it was bought by West Millennium in 2004 from a Japanese developer that essentially abandoned the property after a hotel and office project went south in the early '90s. A Brooks Bros. store had occupied the ground floor until 1989. But today, 76 condos that once were expected to be sold for $300,000 to $1 million sit vacant.
So what drew Bottega Louie to downtown? The first place the owners had looked when setting out to find a flagship for their brand was Beverly Hills, in a 2,500-square-foot space that formerly housed the Airstream Diner.
"You've got to try downtown." That's what Bottega Louie partners heard from boosters at the Central City Assn. of Los Angeles. The partners include Flores, chef Sam Marvin, chief financial officer Kevin McKellar and investors Keat and Klara Bollenbach. Marvin previously had worked at Piero's in Las Vegas and Le Dome under tycoon-turned-restaurateur Ronald Tutor, where he and Flores met and where the Bollenbachs were regulars.
"Our first reaction [to downtown] was 'no,' " Flores says. "But we spent months walking around here, looking at businesses, restaurants, Starbucks. It's how we do things. We're very analytical and iterative. We have spreadsheets on everything."
All those spreadsheets led to them falling in love with the place.
After months of researching restaurants, high-end grocers, and pizza places across the country, "we knew all of the pieces that we wanted," Marvin says. "A big kitchen, market, pizzas, pastries, coffee."
The Brockman Building developer initially wanted a retailer, not a restaurant, but was swayed by the Bottega Louie vision, which includes several future Louies. (Flores and Marvin say they already are looking for their next location.)
And who knows? Maybe the vision is already attracting the right customers.
One recent evening in the cheese section of the market, a man leaned over to his companion as she picked up a fragrant wedge of Abbaye de Belloc, and said, "Isn't this place great? Maybe I should buy the building."