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A Smorgasbord of Choices

By Ann K. Williams and Olin Ericksen

November 15 --The restaurant wasn't even open yet, but the sleek black and stone interior was bustling as receptionist Jamie Ferry took a flurry of last-minute lunch reservations.

“Sushi Roku, please hold,” Ferry said and picked up another line. “Six people? I don't know about six people at that time. Maybe we could split you into two groups?”

By the time Sushi Roku closed down for the night, the trendy restaurant at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Ocean Avenue had likely served lunch and dinner to some 250 customers.

“We're actually a very popular restaurant at night as well, often doing more business in the evening,” Ferry said. “Sometimes we get photographers in here and celebrities.”

Sushi Roku is one of a handful of restaurants – including Boa Steakhouse and Akwa – that is turning Downtown Santa Monica into a regional draw for LA’s see-and-be-seen crowd.

The chic new restaurants are part of an expanding menu of eateries that offer a smorgasbord of choices – from fast food to casual dining to high-end fare – for on-the-job workers, residents, moviegoers, sightseeing tourists and discriminating trendsetters who frequent the Downtown.

“I think there’s a good mix,” said Bayside Chair Bill Tucker. “I don’t think it’s skewed in one direction which will stop someone from finding what they want. It’s healthy to see mixture. If someone wants something more affordable, they can find it.”

“There’s a depth to the restaurant market,” said Robert O. York, a consultant to the Bayside District. “They (restaurants) are really important players in keeping the Downtown a destination.”

If revenues are any indication, after a post-9/11 lull, the restaurant business Downtown has been booming. The Bayside District, which claims 63 of the 128 eateries in the greater Downtown area, saw sales grow from some $63 million in 1999 to more than $81 million last year.

In fact, restaurants accounted for nearly a quarter of the area’s sales in 2004, according to sales tax figures compiled by the City. In addition, restaurants made up a good chunk of the nearly 4,600 workers in the accommodation and food service sector in the 90401 zip code, which includes the Downtown, according to the State Employment Development Division.

“If you’re not doing business in the restaurant business today, something is wrong,” said Jeff King, who owns i Cugini and Ocean Avenue Seafood, two high-end restaurants fronting Palisades Park.

“The tourists are coming back, not just the European tourists, but the Japanese,” said King, whose King’s Seafood Company has restaurants from Calabassas to San Diego. “I just think people have disposable money. People are working.”

According to City sales figures, the Bayside restaurant boom has largely taken place off the Third Street Promenade, where affordable rents have encouraged eateries to open in areas adjacent to the Promenade.

Since 1999 – when the City began exploring alternatives to strike a healthy balance of uses on the Promenade – the number of restaurants on the strip has dropped from 48 to 33 last year. However, sales have only dipped from nearly $43.4 million in 1999 to $41.2 million last year.

“The restaurants on the Promenade itself are holding up well,” said York, a partner in the Fransen Group. “Some have upgraded, and some have relocated, but we’re also getting the sit-down, full-sized restaurants landing in other parts of the district.

“They don’t need to be on the Promenade,” York said. “It helps bring that mix of uses to the Downtown.”

In fact, restaurant sales in the Bayside District outside the Promenade have more than doubled – from nearly $20 million in 1999 to more than $40 million last year, accounting for more than 41 percent of all sales in the area, up from 28 percent in 1999.

That’s good news for Bayside officials, who have been working to spread the Promenade’s success to surrounding streets.

“Restaurants opening off the Promenade is a natural evolution,” said Tucker, who owns property on the popular walk street. “It’s a healthy thing. It’s bringing restaurants” to the streets around the Promenade.

By late October, the summer tourist season has ended, but business is anything but dead on Fourth Street, as the Border Grill prepared for Dia de los Muertos.

Visitors to the upscale restaurant were greeted by a display featuring a four-foot-high sugar skeleton surrounded by candles, decorated loaves and orange chrysanthemums that echoed the color scheme of larger-than-life murals of cartoon blue faces, stars and lizards.

Special events – which include a cooking class in December with Food Network stars Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, the restaurant’s chefs and owners – add to the mix at the popular grill, which has seen sales rise this year, said evening manager Eddie Blakeslee.

“People who come in love the food, love the energy, love the environment,” he said.

Manager Nathan Koval described the Border Grill’s clientele as “typical Westsiders, affluent,” who “enjoy going out to eat.”

Not all restaurants off the Promenade are reaping big sales. Unlike Sushi Roku across Santa Monica Boulevard, Thai Dishes has seen a drop in customers at dinnertime.

“We'll get about 200 customers today, with most of them coming in around lunchtime,” said Katie Chat, a waitress at the low-to-mid-priced restaurant. “It really slows down after that though.”

While the lunch crowds are steady, dinner traffic is seasonal, said Chat, as she leisurely rolled silverware into cloth napkins waiting for the lunch rush. Although quiet now, the restaurant will be full come 12:30 p.m.

“We used to have a line out the door waiting, but now we just get full for lunch and then it’s quiet,” said Chat, who has worked at Thai Dishes for three years. “Saturdays, too, are slow.

“It will be busy in the summer, but then in the off-months it really slows down," she said. "It seems to be fewer customers, though, as time has gone by."

It was a far different scene at Broadway Deli on the Promenade on another late October morning. An autumn drizzle had brought crowds of weekday shoppers and tourists inside to seek warmth in a bowl of the restaurant’s popular matzo ball soup and the animated conversations that echo off the high ceilings.

By 10:30, the bustling staff was serving more than 100 customers, and jokes in English and Spanish flew behind the lunch counter. “We try to keep a fun atmosphere from the management down,” said Camille Marinelli, the deli’s general manager.

Marinelli has noticed a "bump" up in sales this year, as the “restaurant/coffee bar/wine bar/bakery/deli” expands even more. It recently opened a fast service bistro, where moviegoers and others in a hurry can grab a quick bite without waiting in long lines, Marinelli said.

A block down the Promenade, sales are up at Barney's Beanery as well, the 85-year-old West Hollywood eatery that’s celebrating its first year in business in the beachside city.

Promising "a good meal for a fair price," Barney's draws an eclectic crowd, with its everything for everyone menu, choice of dozens of draft beers from around the world and 100 TVs, most of them tuned in the Fall to football games.

“On weekend days it’s sports fans, weekdays it’s professionals, moms with kids,” said Lisa Houston, the restaurant’s director of operations. “They can feel comfortable coming in here… Guys feel comfortable bringing their girlfriends in.”

Karaoke nights attract “the young and the talented, well, hopefully, the talented,” Houston said. “Now that summer is over, there are less tourists and more locals.”

While Broadway Deli and Barney’s Beanery offer sit-down meals at mid-range prices, moviegoers and shoppers on the go have made the Promenade food court a quick-stop destination that caters to a range of palates.

“They each fill a need for particular customers,” said X S. Alexander, who runs the food court. “We try to appeal to as many different people as possible.”

While a line of young, hip moviegoers in jeans and fashionably retro black leather jackets spilled out of Wolfgang Puck's Express upstairs, Zeb Aquarian placed his order at Sushi Shogun on the food court’s ground floor.

“It’s like a reality show – you didn’t realize you asked to be on this show,” said the bearded 53-year-old from Venice, who came here to get a nourishing inexpensive meal. “I live for the marketplaces and plazas and people.”

The popular eateries are on a winning roll, Alexander said. “The tenant mix has evolved for the better. It's held up pretty well.”

Jorge Casuso contributed to this article

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