The owners of Sushi Roku, the popular sushi eatery with West Hollywood and Santa Monica locations, have leased two of the trendiest locations on the Sunset Strip and a third in Pasadena as they embark on a major expansion drive.

"When you're hot, you're hot," said restaurant critic Merrill Shindler. "They know exactly where the market is."

Sushi Roku opened its first outlet on Third Street in West Hollywood near the Beverly Center in early 1997, then followed with a second in Santa Monica last year. Lee Maen, a former real estate broker and Sushi Roku partner, said the two eateries are together doing more than $7 million in sales a year.

"Every single developer is calling to get us into their project; it has been an unbelievable success," Maen said.

Balking at the notion that the chain may be expanding too fast, Maen says the owners have actually been picky about locations. Maen calls the two Sunset Boulevard spots recently leased by the company "the best locations in L.A., period."

The first Sunset location, in the 1927 historical landmark Piazza del Sol office building, will take up 6,500 square feet of renovated space on the ground floor, as well as outdoor space overlooking Sunset.

The new eatery actually won't be a Sushi Roku, though it will be owned by the same people. Maen says it will be a Japanese restaurant with a yet-to-be-determined theme; the partners decided not to open a Sushi Roku at the Sunset location because it's too close to the Third Street outlet. The Piazza del Sol restaurant will have a build-out cost of about $2 million, Maen said.

Sushi and steak

The second Sunset location is right across the street at the Grafton Hotel and once again, it won't be a Sushi Roku, though it will be a high-end restaurant.

Situated near the House of Blues and Mondrian Hotel, the two locations are considered ideal spots for a hip upscale restaurant. Aside from Asia de Cuba in the Mondrian, there is little competition, with most other eateries in the area being in the mid-price category.

Joseph Mani, a partner with Mani Brothers Real Estate Investments, which owns Piazza del Sol, was looking for a restaurant that would fit in with a tenant like Miramax Films, the major lease holder in the building.

"The perfect combo for our tenants is a hip, upscale restaurant," he said.

While the Sushi Roku owners never intended to lease both the Piazza del Sol location and a spot right across the street, the opportunity was too good to pass up.

The restaurant space at the Grafton opened up thanks to a dispute between Ian Schrager, owner of the nearby Mondrian, and Rande Gerber, operator of the Mondrian's hip Skybar restaurant.

Gerber's brother signed a lease to operate a restaurant at the Grafton Hotel, but Rande Gerber has an exclusive contract with Schrager specifying that he can't open outlets that would compete with Schrager's properties. Though the Grafton outlet would have been run by Gerber's brother, Schrager succeeded in getting an injunction preventing the restaurant from opening.

To avoid opening a Japanese restaurant that might compete with their Piazza del Sol location, the owners of Sushi Roku have decided to launch a steakhouse and bar at the Grafton. The steakhouse will be the smallest part of the 1,900-square-foot space, with a hotel bar filling out the rest.

The combo is intended to be a new take on steakhouse favorites like Dan Tana's and The Palm. It will also handle room service for the new Grafton, recently taken over and remodeled by Outrigger Lodging Services.

The third new restaurant, on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, will be a Sushi Roku. That one is slated to open later this month.

Shindler believes it is no accident that the Sushi Roku group is successful. They have a proven track record.

A winning concept

After pursuing more traditional careers in finance, real estate and marketing, three of the owners Maen, Philip Cummins and Craig Katz founded The Gem Bar & Lounge in Hollywood. Cummins also founded and operated two other nightclubs, Renaissance and Lounge 217 in Santa Monica, and Katz owns a promotions and nightclub-operations company called Industry Entertainment.

The fourth Sushi Roku partner, Michael Hide Cardenas, has a long track record in restaurants as former manager of Teru Sushi in Studio City and Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills.

Their timing for founding the first Sushi Roku three years ago could not have been better. Los Angeles was lacking in upscale restaurants, and the economy was just starting to tick upward.

They completely gutted the spot on Third Street and redid it with an upscale natural rock and wood theme that immediately attracted a crowd willing to pay around $40 per person for sushi.

Shindler believes that patrons will most likely follow Sushi Roku's originators wherever they go.

"They get the trendy crowd," Shindler said. "These guys are where they should be."

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