Moving The Melange

After 26 years in the same location, Chez Melange finds a new home
by Richard Foss
Published August 28, 2008

If there is a restaurant that really put the South Bay on the culinary map, it’s Chez Melange. When they opened in 1982 the eclectic menu was bold and exciting, and they were the first restaurant in the area to work with fresh seasonal produce, artisan cheesemakers, and boutique wineries. The unlikely location in a former hotel coffee shop became a place of pilgrimage for people who appreciated fine food, and has remained so ever since.

Pilgrims, change your maps, because Chez Melange is moving. Not far – it’s only a few blocks to their new location on Catalina, former site of Dante’s and Paradiso. The old location will close Aug. 31; the new one will open a few weeks later. Chez Melange co-owner Michael Franks says that business has been as good as ever at the current place, but financial logic dictated the move.

“We have been operating on a one-year lease that we signed after a 25-year lease ended, and we decided that unless we could see our future with a long-term lease here, with a commitment to remodel the hotel and partner with us in the restaurant, we’d find a new location. They weren’t willing to do that, so we decided to move. It’s not that someone else had a bid for this space. At this point, they’re just going to close the doors of the restaurant and leave it vacant. It’s going to be weird… I’m sure that one day I’m going to drive in the parking lot here and realize I’m in the wrong place.”

It’s the end of a relationship that began when the hotel’s previous owner contacted Franks, who was then a partner at Café Courtney in Manhattan Beach, and asked if Café Courtney was interested in opening another location in Redondo Beach. They weren’t, but six months later, when Michael and Robert Bell decided they wanted to start a place of their own, they remembered the offer and asked if it was still open.

“There were a lot of assets here,” Michael remembered. “What attracted us was that it’s a very large, good quality kitchen – at most restaurants the kitchen is about a quarter the size of the dining room, here it’s fifty-fifty. It’s an incredible place to work. It was in really good shape when we took it over, even though it had been in business for 21 years as the Plush Pony coffee shop. This was in the middle of an area where we wanted to open because we knew that a lot of our customers lived near here. We knew the location, liked the demographics, and we knew the customers. We knew what to do differently that we hadn’t been doing at Courtney’s; we wanted to move to a whole new level of using fresh vegetables and seasonal produce. When we were at Courtney’s we were doing some of that, but we knew we had room to improve.”

They had room to improve, and they did. They also had room to open a cooking school and catering operation, and to have occasional wine dinners in the hotel’s banquet rooms. They won’t have those options at the new place, though Michael says they will have other important advantages.

“The new place is 5,000 square feet – our current place is 4,800 square feet, including the cooking school and the two bars. We will have an outdoor patio, a gastropub bar that will seat 44 people for a casual menu, and Chez Melange will seat about 70 people in the dinning room. We’ll also have a cocktail bar for the restaurant. There will be two very distinct dining experiences under the Chez Melange umbrella.

“We won’t have the flexibility of the banquet rooms, but there are compensations. For instance, we won’t have to be open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner 365 days a year, which was in our contract with the hotel. When we first opened, we took that on as a challenge and it was exciting. We had this something-always-going-on concept. As times and people’s eating habits have changed, breakfast is no longer the meal it used to be. Twenty-five years ago there was no Starbucks, people weren’t going out for coffee – it was a power breakfast time. Breakfast doesn’t really work for us now from Monday through Friday. It has been an economic drain for us for the last five years.”

As Michael noted, plenty of other things have changed about the way we eat in the South Bay.

“Twenty-six years ago there were very few ethnic restaurants, nowhere near the breadth of choice and interest. Our direction, which was being a restaurant where you could get something Chinese, something German, something Italian, and something American, was very exciting then. We called it eclectic global cuisine. We stayed for a long time in that zone… Now there are chains that have become extremely successful doing exactly what we did – it’s no longer cutting edge. People are sophisticated, well-traveled, and there is a real food culture here.”

So now that we’re all sophisticated, will the new Chez Melange be making any big, bold statements?
“First, our big bar will be a gastropub, a combination French bistro, English pub, and American bar and grill, all in one. There aren’t many places in LA that have that focus. We’re planning to add a food cart to the gastropub – like our take on dim sum. It might be cheese platters, shrimp cocktail, something that people might just order spontaneously.

“Second, in the dining room we’re 100 percent farmers’ market — natural, seasonal, and sustainable. We’re trying to create a restaurant that is good for our neighborhood. One of our new partners has a small farm just outside San Diego, so we will have plenty of fresh vegetables that will be fresh picked to table. Our meats will come in from Sonoma… Fish is more complicated – we want to buy as much West Coast fish as possible, but local people don’t really seem to want locally caught fish. This is important because we’ll be largely seafood oriented – we’re only a block from the beach, and it fits the area. Our major suppliers will probably be Alaska and Hawaii. Our desserts will move a bit away from chocolate and cream and use more fruits in many different ways. We have always hoped to introduce people to new things, and we hope to do even more of that here.”

It’s a vast new project, and one might ask if Michael and Robert ever considered just closing the restaurant and taking a well-deserved retirement. Michael laughed at the idea, then got serious.

“It was a hard thing, coming to terms with the idea of moving on. The space was still available to us, and we could have kept things going here, but we felt it was too limiting and too short. We did look at various possibilities. I have a son who is now in our business and we’re definitely going to do something together someday. Robert had shown interest in getting a little neighborhood place, maybe even a little counter, where he could cook for a limited number of people per night. That’s his passion, what he loves to do. We looked at the opportunities that were out there, but when this location came up we both said, let’s do this together. We went everywhere, and this was exactly what we were looking for. We have a 14-year lease… I kid Robert that I’ll be wheeling him around in a wheelchair by the time this is over.”

And will there ever be another Chez Melange, perhaps a chain of restaurants bearing that famous name? Michael rejected the idea firmly.

“We always felt that the thing that makes this Chez Melange is that Robert and I are here. We can’t put that name on any place else and have it mean the same thing.” ER