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Saturday, Sep 30, 2023

Boulevard Boom in Upscale Eateries

Supper clubs, night clubs, fusion food and cuisine cooked up from all over the world this isn’t your father’s Ventura Boulevard. Long known for rolling up its sidewalks at nine, the San Fernando Valley is beginning to stir at night. A number of new restaurants have moved onto the boulevard, some offering entertainment and staying open until 2 a.m. Others are offering the same trendy tastes once found only on the other side of the hill. “I think the 101 (freeway) and Ventura Boulevard has a long history and a lot of people really know about Ventura Boulevard,” said Jae Jang, who just opened Octopus Japanese Fusion Restaurant in Encino. “In the past year or so people are finally realizing how valuable Ventura Boulevard is and people are coming back in.” Maybe it’s the traffic. Or maybe it’s the rising home prices that have brought a new clientele with more disposable income to the area, but Ventura Boulevard, long known more for its donut shops than for its dining, is becoming decidedly more upscale, and the locals are responding. Octopus, which opened last month in a 3,500-square-foot space, serves a fusion menu that combines Japanese ingredients with Italian sauces, Mexican salsas and other spices. Locals are passing up Baja Fresh for a new, upscale Mexican restaurant, Sol y Luna in Tarzana, where the chef’s specialty is $24.95 and the wait for a table on Saturday night can run to an hour. Several weeks ago a Russian themed night club, Red Square, opened in Woodland Hills. Rio Lounge & Grill in Encino, a supper club that opened about two years ago, is doing so well, its owners have added a fifth night of entertainment and extended the acts on other nights. Prospects look good enough that some of the partners are about to open two new restaurants nearby. Moulin Rouge, offering French cuisine and Can-Can dancers, and Alexandria Gourmet Mediterranean Tapas, which the owners say is the only tapas bar in the Valley, both open this week at Encino Place. Just a few short years ago, the fine dining eateries that tried to export their formulas found themselves unwelcome in the Valley. Posto, Piero Selvaggio’s Valley-version of Valentino, closed. So did Prego, after finding that Sherman Oaks was a longer way from Beverly Hills than it had imagined. Ditto for Papashon. But the current slate of upscale newcomers sees only potential. “One of the main reasons (for opening in Encino) is the residents in the area,” said Marvin Estrada, the owner of Rio Lounge & Grill. “You have one of the wealthiest areas from Studio City to Agoura Hills here.” Your money’s worth Still, Estrada, and most of the new owners are not banking on their neighbors wealth alone. Experienced restaurant operators all, they note that they have devised menus and venues that appeal to the very same values that have dictated the success or failure of restaurants in the past, ample servings and plenty of bang for the buck. Rio is an all-you-can eat steakhouse that features 16 different types of meats. Dinner prices depend on the entertainment featured, $35 per person Tuesday through Thursday, and $45 on Friday and Saturday when the shows feature samba and other Latin dances and last about 45 minutes, with an opening Bossa Nova jazz band. There are special dance programs for those who want to hold birthday parties at the club and seating that can accommodate as many as 20 guests in a party. “I’ve done this at other venues over the hill on the West side, so I knew there was a need for this,” said Estrada, whose background includes marketing and promotion. “And birthday parties are always an important way of getting clients. When they want to go out and have a great time they’re going to go a little above the norm.” Experts in the field point out that the most successful establishments offer a full evening’s entertainment, not just a meal. “People want a destination,” said Linda Lipsky, whose Broomall, Penn.-company, Linda Lipsky Restaurant Consultants Inc. specializes in the field of hospitality operations. “It’s an entire evening. It’s an event. These are the restaurants that have a waiting list.” That should bode well for two newer nightspots, Red Square and Moulin Rouge. Club scene Red Square, which is owned by a partnership that also includes Estrada, features an extensive collection of vodkas in a funky disco setting with kitschy red velvet couches. Although dinner is available, the dance floor and the two bars set more of a club scene, and Red Square is only open on Friday and Saturday nights. Moulin Rouge is the second Encino venture from Robaire Altounin, a partner in Rio who until a few years ago had operated another local eatery Robaire’s Bistro. Altounin said he surveyed the Valley landscape to come up with another French restaurant that could compete with Caf & #233; Bizou and Bistro Garden, both with long, successful histories in the area. The menu at Moulin Rouge will range from appetizers like escargot and fois gras with truffles to entrees like dover sole, steak tartare and prime rib served for two at prices that go up to $23 for an entr & #233;e. (The prime rib is $48.) Can-Can shows and dancing will be free to diners and others will be charged a two-drink minimum. “Encino does not have a French restaurant with atmosphere and a really nice show,” said Altounin. Does he worry that some might say it is because such night life has never been part of the backyard and barbecue culture of the Valley? “I know the Encino customers,” Altounin says. “I have 20 years here. I know them, and I think it’s a great market.” The owners of Sol y Luna also have a long history of experience with Valley customers. Alex and Norma Morales, the husband and wife team that owns Sol y Luna, which opened in January, launched their first of two fast food Mexican restaurants in Reseda, Las Fuentes and Melody’s, more than 20 years ago. Upscale fare The Moraleses said they’ve already proven they have a customer for their brand of Mexican fare, but what they always wanted was the chance to serve their favorite dishes in a more upscale atmosphere. When the opportunity arose, they acquired the building that once housed La Parilla, and plowed about $500,000 into renovating the space. The distinctive restaurant is easily identifiable from Ventura Boulevard by the statues and landscaping of the exterior. Inside, the Moraleses commissioned an artist to paint a mural that depicts famous Mexicans, from Pancho Villa to Frida Kahlo, all seated around a dining table. “Being in business for 23 years with our first restaurant, we felt comfortable that the same type of food would work here served in a more formal manner,” said Alex Morales. To go along with the more elaborate d & #233;cor, the Moraleses extended the menu, offering pricier steak and seafood dishes and a specialty called molcajete, a dish filled with chicken breasts, steak, grilled cactus, cheese and other ingredients cooked over an open flame in a lava rock bowl. In the short time that the restaurant has been open, “business has been very steady,” Morales said. “In the six weeks that we’ve been open, I’d say more than 70 percent of the people have come back more than three times.” Experts say that it is no longer enough to offer good food and service. Restaurants must have a point of distinction in order to get the attention of customers and to survive the onslaught of chains that dot the landscape. “The world does not need one more place to eat,” said Bill Marvin, whose Gig Harbor, Wash.-based consulting firm, The Restaurant Doctor, works with independents. “If you’re just one more place to eat, you’ve got a problem.” Cable channels like Food Network, are also changing customers’ palettes, Marvin said. “A lot of (a restaurateur’s) guests are more food savvy than someone who works in the kitchen. It’s raised awareness of what’s possible.” That’s what the owner of Octopus is betting on, although Jang concedes that so far, the restaurant’s innovative menu has not drawn the crowds that his other restaurants, in Ventura, Camarillo, Burbank and Glendale, lay claim to. “A lot of people who live around these areas are accustomed to only the places they go to. They don’t try something different,” Jang said. “If they have a particular restaurant, I don’t think they’re anxious to try something new, so I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s taking longer than anticipated.” Still, Jang expects that once he is able to get customers into the restaurant, they will come back. And the other newcomers would likely agree, even when it comes to the Valley with its fickle dining history. “I don’t believe that,” said Morales. “I don’t see anything different with people in the Valley. Not to me.”

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