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First Rock, Then Blues, Now Countrified Fare : Restaurants: CityWalk’s Country Star is part diner, part museum and part arcade. It joins the entertainment trend begun by the Hard Rock Cafe and House of Blues.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It’s getting so that when you want to dine out, you don’t just have to decide what kind of food you want, but what kind of music you like.

With that in mind, a recent survey showed that by far, country music is the favorite of the nation’s regular restaurant diners. Robert Schuster and Peter Feinstein are banking on it.

They’re the chairman and president of Country Star, a restaurant opening on Universal City’s CityWalk on Monday that’s part down-home diner, part country museum and part music video arcade.

It’s the latest in the trend of music-oriented eateries a la the Hard Rock Cafe and the House of Blues, as well as the latest step in the infiltration of country music into the pop mainstream.

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Schuster and Feinstein would argue, though, that country isn’t infiltrating the mainstream--it is the mainstream.

“Country is a real family thing,” says Schuster, sitting with Feinstein at a leather-toned booth in the restaurant while workmen scurried around putting finishing touches on the facility. “This is a restaurant that adds an entertainment component directly related to family values.”

In fact, it will be hard to escape entertainment at Country Star, with a state-of-the-art sound system, interactive stations with artist information and profiles, displays of country memorabilia and 96 video screens--including small monitors in the restrooms.

“The Hard Rock and Planet Hollywood have proven that people are looking for entertainment to go with their hamburger,” says Feinstein. “If you are delivering an entertainment element that goes with food, everybody wins.”

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Additionally, though not a live music venue per se, Country Star will be available for record and film companies for album and movie release parties and a portion of the club can be converted into a stage for special performances.

Sounds like a lot of Hollywood sensory-overload for down-home country music, but the partners say that the concept has been embraced by the country community, both here and in Nashville. Country stars Wynonna Judd, Vince Gill and Reba McEntire and TV talk-show hosts Lorianne Crook and Charlie Chase have signed on as “celebrity representatives” of the venture (as well as shareholders), and numerous other performers have loaned the restaurant stage clothes and other items for their displays.

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Those representatives will be on hand for an invitation-only grand opening on Sunday, a night of countrypolitan cross-pollination with Hollywood that is expected to draw a number of film and sports stars. For fans who want to do some star-gazing, bleachers will be set up outside and celeb interviews will be conducted by Crook and Chase.

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J.D. Freeman, general manager of L.A. country radio station KZLA-FM--which will be broadcasting from Sunday’s opening--notes that “Southern California is the largest market for country music in America.”

Schuster, 51, and Feinstein, 50, have never represented themselves as country born-and-bred. Milwaukee native Schuster, a lawyer, started in the music business in the ‘60s as partner with Albert Grossman, managing Bob Dylan, the Band and others.

In the ‘70s he moved away from music, representing authors and others, but five years ago he discovered country as he started negotiating book deals for several stars, including Naomi Judd and Garth Brooks.

“I’d been listening to classic rock stations, but when I heard new country music I realized that it was a continuation of the kinds of music I’d always liked,” he says.

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In 1992, realizing his own discovery mirrored the growing popularity of country, he started developing the idea for a country restaurant chain. Last year he recruited L.A.-reared Feinstein, co-owner of the Spectrum health clubs chain, who admits that he wasn’t a country fan until Schuster took him to a Garth Brooks concert last year in Las Vegas.

For restaurant expertise they turned to Robert Morris, who founded Gladstone’s, among other ventures, and brought in executive chef Layne Wootten, whose way with the likes of chili and ribs is well known in the country community--he recently served as tour chef for the group Alabama.

On the eve of their grand opening, the executives are already planning moves into other regions. Groundbreaking is scheduled for Las Vegas in December, with a June opening targeted, and London is being considered for the first international expansion.

If they can tap into the family values theme so often expressed by country artists, they say, the venture will be a success.

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“If you have a family, dance halls and honky-tonks are not the place where you take your 8-year-old daughter,” Schuster says. “This is a place you can.”


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