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Saved by staff, beachfront Gladstone's will stay open — at least for now

-- Pacific Palisades, CA -- July 6, 2008 -- Paul Flores, of Colvina, and Sandra Perez, of Walnut, enjoy their first outside meal at Gladstone's in Pacific Palisades on July 6, 2008. The two usually enjoy their meals inside the restaurant. ( Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times )
Gladstone's in Pacific Palisades, which was going to close in September, remains open due to a new partnership of its longtime employees. (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)

One of L.A.’s most iconic beachfront restaurants was slated to close last month, until a group of its own employees managed to stop its end — at least for now.

Gladstone’s in the Pacific Palisades, situated along Pacific Coast Highway with a public deck right on the sand, is set to eventually close and make way for a new restaurant that’s helmed by celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck and designed by famed architect Frank Gehry. The immediate future of Gladstone’s, which is awaiting a demolition that could take months or years to materialize, was called into question when its most recent owner and former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan died in April.

His long-running concessions agreement with the L.A. County Department of Beaches and Harbors passed to his estate, which chose to terminate the lease at its end on Sept. 15. That’s when a handful of the restaurant’s staff banded together to form a new operations entity, and kept Gladstone’s running — with a new menu and a new community bent.

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“We really thought we were closing, so we put the word out there and everyone came out to say goodbye,” said Jim Harris, the restaurant’s manager and CEO of the newly formed Gladstone’s Legacy Group. “We heard so many stories of, ‘Oh, my parents met here,’ and, ‘We got married here,’ ‘We’ve been coming here for 15 years' or 30 years or 40 years.”

Read more: Gladstone's restaurant to close after 50 years; Wolfgang Puck and Frank Gehry plan a makeover

Since 1972 guests have flocked to Gladstone’s for celebrity sightings and seafood-centric dishes, even more so after the popular restaurant relocated from Santa Monica Canyon to PCH in 1981. At one point, it served as one of the busiest restaurants in Southern California, if not the country.

Over the decades, Riordan himself was a fixture at the restaurant, singing songs to guests, telling corny jokes and sipping piña coladas.

A Gladstone’s under separate ownership continues to operate in Long Beach.

Along PCH, Harris said the last few years haven’t been easy, operating through several different natural disasters, including fires, rains and the pandemic, some of which threatened to close the restaurant for good. The staff, however, are “resilient,” according to Harris, and a number of them have worked for the restaurant long enough that they’re now employed there alongside their children and even grandchildren. It made the news of its closure all the more difficult for them.

For the last decade as Riordan grew older and speculation mounted as to the future of Gladstone’s, the staff had “already been living kind of waiting for the other shoe to fall,” Harris said. When he died and the overseers of his trust decided not to renew the lease, the staff initially felt they could do nothing to save it.

The Gladstone's sign seen from Pacific Coast Highway.
The Gladstone's sign seen from Pacific Coast Highway. (Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)

“It's a big restaurant and it's famous, but it's very seasonal,” he said. “There's a lot more competition now than there used to be, and it didn't really make sense for them because they're really a low-risk, low-yield kind of charitable trust.”

L.A. County didn’t want to see the public space fall into disarray in the interim, however, and worked to secure a new deal with a handful of the restaurant’s staff in order to keep it running for however long Gladstone’s on PCH has left. The county and the operators arranged a new concessions agreement, which could run for up to two years.

“They approached the county with a proposal to continue operating the restaurant once Riordan’s company decided to focus on charitable endeavors,” said Nicole Mooradian, a representative of the L.A. County Department of Beaches and Harbors. “Everyone involved acted very quickly to ensure a seamless transition.”

Harris and chef Juan Aquino, along with associate general manager Alex Peniston, quickly formed a company called Legacy Restaurant Associates, then began to accumulate more aid from the staff roster.

Parking lot operator Voltaire Menezes and his wife, Lisane, agreed to join forces in the operation, as did the restaurant’s financial advisor of a decade, Philip Gay. Together they created Gladstones Legacy Group LLC, which came together in three weeks, and, at the 11th hour, received transfer of the liquor license — a necessity for the restaurant’s survival, according to Harris.

Should the Puck and Gehry development stall, Harris hopes to propose a third year of operations, extending their tenure.

Once Gladstone’s does eventually close to make way for the building’s demolition and the new project, opening another Gladstone’s location isn’t entirely out of the question for the Legacy team, but for now, Harris said, they’re simply trying to keep Gladstone’s on PCH running.

Read more: Supervisors favor Wolfgang Puck-Frank Gehry project to replace Gladstones on PCH

A representative for Puck could not provide an update on the new project nor a more recent timeline for its start, though in August Puck’s business partner, developer Tom Tellefsen, told The Times that they hoped to break ground in early to mid-2024 and expect at least 18 months of construction.

Mooradian said that the new project’s team is working to obtain approval from the California Coastal Commission.

In the meantime, to celebrate Gladstone's continuation, the team has instituted a 1970s-inspired, throwback “golden” happy hour where parking is $7, the piña coladas and margaritas and select food items are $7, and beer and wine run $5. They’re working on improving and adding to the food menu with new vegetarian entrees and lighter dishes in addition to the stalwart chowder, fish and chips and other staples.

Another goal: making the public deck and restaurant more of a community space. New public benches can be found overlooking the ocean, while new lounge furniture near the firepit and elsewhere is intended for more comfort and a welcoming atmosphere. The team has scheduled new live programming, such as DJ sets from KXLU radio show “The Molotov Cocktail Hour” running every Friday in November, which is available to customers and non-customers alike.

Guest chef pop-ups are also in the works, as is co-working in the restaurant’s event space — already aided by the team’s recent expansion of Gladstone’s wi-fi capabilities.

“Not everything's about dollars for us,” Harris said. “We just really want to create a great environment to welcome Southern California.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.