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Culver City OKs ‘Restaurant Row’ : Italian Cafe Wins a Berth but Sizzler Bites the Dust

Times Staff Writer

The owner of one of the top restaurants in the country has tentatively agreed to be part of a proposed restaurant row in Culver City.

But the exclusion of a Sizzler Restaurant that was expected to be included has management of the company that owns Sizzler predicting that the project will fail.

The Culver City Council, sitting as the Redevelopment Agency, on Monday gave tentative approval to the Jacmar Companies of Alhambra to develop a restaurant row on city property near Sepulveda Boulevard and Slauson Avenue across from the Fox Hills Mall.

In July, 1987, the agency signed an exclusive agreement with Jacmar to find “quality” restaurants interested in opening facilities in Culver City. For years, city officials have complained about a lack of large, quality restaurants in the city.

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4.5-Acre Site

William H. Tilley, Jacmar’s president, said 12 restaurants had expressed interest in being among the four or five eateries on a 4.5-acre site bordered by Slauson, Hannun and Knightsbridge avenues.

Among those expressing interest was Piero Selvaggio, owner of Valentino restaurant in Santa Monica--considered among the best restaurants in the country--and Primi, a less expensive pasta restaurant in West Los Angeles.

Selvaggio told the council that his new restaurant, Cafe Giorgio, would fall somewhere between his two other restaurants in terms of price and type of food.

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“I like the site, I like the challenge,” Selvaggio said. “I think Culver City can be a city where we can say there is a fine restaurant.”

From among the other interested restaurants, Tilley had recommended approval of Tony Roma’s, which features ribs, steak and chicken; Red Robin, which serves “gourmet” hamburgers and Mexican food, and a “flagship” Sizzler, which serves inexpensive salads, steaks, chicken and fish.

The Redevelopment Agency staff also endorsed Cafe Giorgio and Sizzler, but recommended that the third restaurant be Little J’s West, a “country cajun-style” restaurant, or Baci’s, an upscale Italian restaurant proposed by Giuseppe Bellisario, who owns Giuseppe’s in West Hollywood and a Baci’s in Beverly Hills.

The staff suggested that the fourth restaurant be either Tony Roma’s, Red Robin or Chili’s, a chain restaurant similar in menu and price to Red Robin.

Two in City

The City Council agreed to include Cafe Giorgio, Tony Roma’s and Red Robin, but rejected Sizzler in favor of the Seafood Grill and Broiler.

Council members said they opposed the Sizzler because there are already two in the city, and that although it was being described as a “flagship” restaurant, the proposed restaurant would not really be anything new.

“It’s not an exciting concept,” said Mayor Paul Jacobs. “It’s just an old use on a new spot.”

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“We love Sizzler here, but we already have two,” said Councilwoman Jozelle Smith, chairwoman of the Redevelopment Agency. “We were really looking for something new.”

But the exclusion of Sizzler, which is considered a draw to other restaurants, has cast doubts about the success of the restaurant row. It has made another developer optimistic that his rejected proposal for a mixture of restaurants, live theater, cinemas, specialty stores and office space at that site may be revised.

“I don’t think the restaurants will survive without Sizzler,” said Michael Minchin, a vice president of Collins Foods International, which owns 65% of Sizzler Restaurants. “Sizzler would have been the strongest economic base of the restaurant row. We attract 10,000 customers a week.”

‘Wrong Use’

“Even if we were there, I believe it is the wrong use of that property. That site will absolutely and unequivocally not support five to eight restaurants by themselves. A restaurant row is a high-risk venture. It would concern me if I was a Culver City resident.”

Brad Rosenberg, president of Cassa Inc., a residential and commercial development company, had proposed a mix of restaurants, theater and commercial space for the city’s lot and on adjoining property controlled by Cassa. He had a tentative commitment from the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble in Santa Monica to be a part of his project.

“We think that a mixed-use development, where you can create a synergy of different uses, makes a lot more sense to the tenants who are there and the citizens who use it,” Rosenberg said.

But the council said its exclusive agreement with Jacmar prevented it from considering any other proposal unless the restaurant row concept wouldn’t work.

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“Had we not been able to attract the restaurants that we did, we probably would not have gone forward,” Smith said. “But we were on target.”

“For us to consider any other alternative, to say the least, would have been unethical and inappropriate,” Jacobs said. “From my standpoint, the restaurant-only concept we adopted more than a year ago is far more exciting, more original and unique than a mixed use. We already have plenty of office space.”

Optimistic Note

Jack S. Keese, Jacmar’s vice president for real estate development, acknowledged that the project would have been more successful with Sizzler. But despite its absence, and Minchin’s gloomy forecast, he predicted the restaurants will prosper.

“We would have liked to see Sizzler in there,” said Keese. “They are the strongest destination restaurant in the country. But we think it’s still going to succeed. Piero (Selvaggio), in himself, is going to be a draw to the project.”

Keese downplayed the need for a mixed use at the site for the restaurants to succeed. He said that nearby office complexes, such as Corporate Pointe, and nearby retail, at Fox Hills Mall, create in essence a larger mixed-use area.

“It’s just a bigger mixed use,” he said. “The only element that is missing is restaurants. That’s why a restaurant-only concept makes sense.”

Still, Rosenberg hopes that his proposal may still be alive.

“It would appear that it is dead, but in this business nothing is final until all the contracts are final,” he said.


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