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Chic Francois’ Leads Chorus of <i> Au Revoir </i> at Arco Plaza

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Times Staff Writer

When the Arco Towers with their underground shopping mall were dedicated on Jan. 30, 1973, the swanky Francois’ restaurant offered a safe and comfortable haven from the desolation that then was downtown Los Angeles.

Those in search of quality cuisine had little choice but to either descend three floors beneath the 52-story towers to Francois’ or rise 30 floors to The Tower atop what is now the Transamerica Occidental Life Building, a dozen blocks to the south.

But after dinner Thursday, award-winning Francois’ quietly closed its doors forever. Its former patrons, however, will now find no lack of classy eateries nearby to replace it.

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Thursday’s diners, who were not otherwise informed that they were attending Francois’ last supper, would not likely have guessed it from the demeanor of the staff, which remained stoical and professional to the end.

Less stoical were their counterparts at neighboring B Dalton Bookseller, whose fate was outlined by a sign at the shop’s entrance. “This store will close on May 8,” it read. “We look forward to serving you in our store at Crocker Center.”

Explained an unhappy clerk: “There was just not enough traffic, and the company just decided not to renew the lease.”

As the Dalton sign indicated, Arco Plaza’s retail tenants no longer have the downtown crowd to themselves. Besides Crocker Center with its restaurants and shops, and Citicorp Plaza with its new department stores, new or renovated hotels and scores of stylish bar-and-grills and fast-food outlets of every persuasion today dot the landscape.

In sharp contrast, Arco Plaza’s once-bustling C level below ground yawns with half a dozen blank retail spaces--now to be joined by Francois’ and B Dalton.

Above ground, the twin towers’ major tenants--Atlantic Richfield and Bank of America--have retrenched in recent years. The cutbacks slashed the buildings’ total population (and the customer core for the 49 subterranean retailers) by more than a fifth. From a high of about 9,000 people three years ago, the buildings now house fewer than 7,000, according to Charles Boyer, a vice president with Shuwa Investment Corp., the American subsidiary of a Tokyo development company that bought Arco Plaza last September.

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While acknowledging the decline in office occupancy and rise in retail vacancies, Boyer nonetheless maintained that the worst is behind Arco Plaza. “We’re developing a plan,” he said.

“It’ll involve some cosmetic rehabilitation, and we are in very serious negotiations with several major operators--food and other types of retailers--and we expect to have a successor to Francois’ within the next week or 10 days and opening in July. It will be a restaurant of the same caliber as Francois’,” he added.

The firm also is redesigning the subterranean retail space, Boyer said, which may be the basis for rumors circulating among retailers that some shop sites might be converted to additional underground parking--rumors that Boyer denied.

“Our main goal is to brighten and give a more open image to the area,” he said. “The street entrances are kind of nondescript, too, and can easily get lost. So we’re also looking at that and improvements in the signs there.”

Boyer said recently signed leases and commitments to lease office space indicate that Arco Plaza continues to enjoy downtown’s resurgent popularity. He predicted that Arco Plaza’s population will increase greatly by year-end.

In a way, Francois’ fate was determined only in part by the increased competition that has divided the so-called white-table-cloth market among more quality restaurants. In addition, its management changed hands three years ago when Saga Corp. won Arco Plaza’s major food-service contract from ARA Services only to be swallowed up last year by Marriott, which at the time said it was interested primarily in Saga’s institutional food business and not its restaurants.

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“Francois’ was just part of the deal,” noted one member of the restaurant staff. “We knew then that our days were numbered.”

Saga’s three-year lease, originally signed with Arco and Bank of America and respected by the buildings’ new owner, expired this month. Both Boyer and Marriott district manager John Yamin said the parties “mutually agreed” not to renew. Boyer added that Francois’ had never turned a profit.

Meanwhile, Yamin said, Marriott expects to continue operating three other Arco Plaza eateries--the Roaring Lion, O’Shaughnessy’s Downtown and a string of fast-food stands called the Soho Square Sandwich shops.

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