Amar Santana always wanted a chef community in Orange County. The Queens, New York, native was used to late nights with fellow cooks, hanging out and drinking beers after long shifts on the line. So when he moved across the country in 2008 to open Charlie Palmer, a fine dining contemporary American restaurant that ultimately lasted seven years, he tried to bring the party with him. Landing at Orange County’s South Coast Plaza, one of America’s highest-grossing retail developments, made for an auspicious start.
“There wasn’t a place where all the chefs would go and hang out at night,” says Santana. “Back in New York, Anthony Bourdain would go to the same bar every night.” He tried to build something similar with his staff, frequenting a nearby dive bar, but it eventually fizzled out. In the years since, he’s seen countless restaurant brands come and go from South Coast Plaza. The high-end development can be unforgiving to underperforming brands and restaurants. When Charlie Palmer closed in May 2015, Santana quickly transitioned into a new South Coast Plaza space with Ahmed Labbate, another Charlie Palmer alum, and investor Pam Roy. Santana found sustained success with Vaca, the eight-year-old Spanish restaurant known for its aged steaks. Now, after 15 years in Orange County, Santana feels like he’s finding the community he’s been seeking in South Coast Plaza.
The privately owned development long held by the Segerstroms — one of Orange County’s most influential families — has become a beacon for kitchen talent and diners willing to spend big money. South Coast Plaza is home to Knife Pleat, one of Southern California’s highest-profile French fine dining restaurants; it’s got a Petrossian caviar cafe (housed inside of a Tiffany’s store, naturally), a Din Tai Fung for soup dumplings, and a Wahoo’s Fish Taco, among other offerings. In all, more than two dozen restaurants call South Coast Plaza home. Some have Michelin recognition, while others are run by Top Chef celebrities or Smithsonian-honored legends like Helene An, who operates AnQi Bistro on the second floor in what’s called the Bloomingdale’s Wing.
Santana says all that competition is healthy. “Now it’s a shopping resort, and you can get a Michelin-star meal,” he says. “It’s good for everyone.”
Even in coastal, casual Orange County, where many diners prefer flip-flops and taco trucks to white tablecloths, South Coast Plaza’s collection of restaurants dominates the landscape. There is no conversation about where to eat in Orange County that does not eventually touch on the retail behemoth.
South Coast Plaza’s story starts with lima beans.
The Segerstrom family behind the sprawling shopping center arrived in Orange County in 1898 from Sweden. They worked a dairy farm at first, before eventually transitioning into lima beans — a massive cash crop at the time for the area. The family became one of the country’s largest independent lima bean producers. By the 1950s the county began to undergo large-scale transformation and population growth, spurred on by new highways and coastal access, and in 1967 Henry Segerstrom and his relatives created the C.J. Segerstrom & Sons real estate partnership to further diversify their holdings.
That same year, they opened South Coast Plaza on an old plot of farmland close to the freeway. The first version of the property was much smaller (1 million square feet) and more traditional (as far as malls go), with a few dozen retail spaces and anchor tenants like Sears. Now, more than 55 years later, the total sum of South Coast Plaza’s growth has reached a staggering 2.8 million square feet, with some 250 boutique stores and 30 restaurants. More than 20 million customers visit each year from around the globe, and in 2021, South Coast Plaza’s annual sales exceeded $2 billion. (The number excludes certain tenants who prefer not to share their sales figures.)
South Coast Plaza’s success stems in part from the reputation it has cultivated as a destination, not a mall. (Never call it a mall.) Almost from the outset, the Segerstroms pursued relationships with high-end retailers, traveling abroad to meet with designers to coax them to Southern California. The family understood Orange County’s interest in aspirational brands, cultivating connections that led to exclusive regional retail openings with big-name brand value, starting with Nordstrom in the 1970s and Tiffany & Co. a decade later. In 1973 the restaurant Horikawa opened at South Coast Plaza, becoming Orange County’s first sushi bar.
“My father Henry Segerstrom set the tone and direction for South Coast Plaza,” says Anton Segerstrom. “He was a world traveler with a high taste level. His vision was evident early on with Riviera, a French fine dining restaurant that opened at South Coast Plaza in 1967. The family has continued to present a variety of unique dining experiences ever since.”
More recently, South Coast Plaza has begun to bring in even more food brands to help anchor its sprawling corridors, relying on a mix of known local restaurants, big-name culinary talent like Amar Santana, globally-recognized labels like Petrossian caviar, and giant international restaurant groups looking to make inroads into a new market — just like Nordstrom did nearly 50 years ago.
“We’re at South Coast Plaza. There’s built-in business,” says chef Nick Weber, who operates the colorful Populaire with friend and partner Ross Pangilinan (located on Level 2 in the Saks Fifth Avenue Wing, of course). “There are people who frequent the center four to five times per week, just to go shopping — which kind of blows me away. It’s a great clientele that likes to eat well, and they’re always walking by.”
Pangilinan knows that foot traffic well, having run the restaurant Terrace by Mix Mix elsewhere at the plaza. He also believes that having hands-on landlords has helped him secure long-term success for his projects. “I have what I think is a great relationship with [the Segerstrom family],” says Pangilinan. “They’ve been really great to work with.”
Pangilinan, Weber, Santana, and other chefs at South Coast Plaza regularly attend and cook at private events for the Segerstroms and many of the developments’ ultra-wealthy clientele, be it for birthday parties, blowout galas, or charity events. The close-knit relationships within South Coast Plaza also led directly to Verdant, a new restaurant at the predominantly Segerstrom-funded Orange County Museum of Art located next door. Pangilinan runs that restaurant with Weber, and many of South Coast Plaza’s higher-end chefs have already cooked at OCMA for various charity events and public functions.
“We all get along,” says Santana of his fellow chefs. “We’re under the same umbrella. We don’t get to [cook together] on a daily basis, but when we do get together for some events it’s a lot of fun. We get a lot out of it.” In recent years the group has grown to include Tony Esnault and his wife and partner Yassmin Sarmadi, who were coaxed to the penthouse floor of South Coast Plaza in 2019 to open the glittering French destination, Knife Pleat. Located next to the Louis Vuitton atelier, Knife Pleat is the center’s pinnacle fine dining restaurant. It has a Michelin star, and has received numerous critical accolades, and Esnault and Sarmadi are always game to throw around truffles and caviar for an upscale audience, or to pose for pictures with cast members from Netflix’s Bling Empire.
Ed Lee, the co-founder of Wahoo’s Fish Tacos, takes a more downmarket approach to his restaurants at South Coast Plaza. Not long ago, he spotted an empty storefront in the Macy’s Home Store wing of the plaza, and approached the Segerstroms about filling the vacancy. They didn’t want another Wahoo’s, so together with Lee, who co-owns Toast Kitchen + Bakery, a plan was hatched to open Tableau Kitchen & Bar, an upscale version of the popular brunch restaurant. The development needed an upscale breakfast place, and Toast was already doing brisk business nearby in Costa Mesa.
“South Coast looks for something unique so everything is different for their shoppers,” he says. “Everyone here wants to tweak and elevate their menu. The idea was to elevate Toast.” With the help of a designer and executive chef John Park, Toast opened in May 2022, and it keeps gaining momentum — as does South Coast Plaza’s unofficial chefs club.
“I would never in my wildest dreams imagine hanging out with a Michelin star winner,” says Lee. “Tony [Esnault] — He’s so cool. Ross and Nick over at Populaire... it’s a good group of guys.”
For some, South Coast Plaza’s hyper-cultivated image, heavy-handed oversight, and its dizzying roster of luxury retailers can be off-putting. The culinary lineup, while prodigious, is also almost entirely male-dominated — a meaningful imbalance when groups like the Segerstrom family directly control what is (and isn’t) seen publicly at one of America’s biggest retail developments.
Over the decades, challengers to the now-56-year-old South Coast Plaza have sprung up all over the place, particularly in the city of Costa Mesa. In 1993, the LAB Anti-Mall opened with the mission to attract shoppers avoiding mainstream labels and leased spaces to “Little American Businesses” (hence the acronym). It acts as a funky stepsibling to South Coast Plaza and boasts its own culinary talent, the Michelin-starred Hana Re.
Across the street from the LAB is its eco-friendly sister the Camp. Outdoorsy brands and, notably, female-owned businesses like Blackmarket Bakery and the original East Borough Vietnamese restaurant sit next to artisanal concepts like anchor tenant Folks Pizzeria, which turns out thousands of pizzas a week to long lines of eager eaters.
In 2009, Soco Collection and the Mix opened less than three miles from South Coast Plaza. It’s fueled by independent restaurants including ARC Food & Libations and the Butcher’s House, and cafes like Portola Coffee Roasters. Its crown jewel is undoubtedly Carlos Salgado’s Taco María.
A shifting retail landscape and competition from smaller, more nimble independent outfits like the LAB Anti-Mall have not killed South Coast Plaza (far from it), but the Segerstroms have worked to adapt to the modern climate. They’ve expanded their downmarket dining options to an affordable, family-friendly middle, somewhere between dusty mall pretzels and adult dinner destinations like Vaca, and have brought in more brands with ties to Asia. Retail tourism and shoppers from local Asian American communities make up a big chunk of the development’s bottom line.
Sean Xie, owner and partner of Miàn Gourmet Sichuan Noodle (part of the Chengdu Taste restaurant empire), spent years looking for just the right location inside of South Coast Plaza. With so much money and so many people passing through the South Coast Plaza ecosystem daily, Xie didn’t want to get it wrong. “This is one of the busiest shopping centers in the country,” he says.
Miàn’s seventh location opened in October 2022 in what was formerly an Italian restaurant. The owners repurposed the previous tenant’s built-in pizza oven to cook off some of the restaurant’s high-heat, quick-fire Sichuan dishes. Xie finally settled on the space because of its location, adjacent to a parking lot entrance and directly below Taiwanese dumpling dominator Din Tai Fung. The shopping center is so massive, in fact, that it actually houses two giant soup dumpling chains — the other being the first U.S. location of Singapore-based Paradise Dynasty, whose colorful xiao long bao have taken Asia’s cutthroat dumpling scene by storm.
Paradise Dynasty is an anchor tenant for what’s known as Collage Culinary Experience, South Coast Plaza’s modern take on the mall food court that features restaurants like Bruxie Fried Chicken and Waffle Sandwiches, Egg LXIII, and PhoHolic. “South Coast Plaza has never had a food court,” Segerstrom counters, saying instead that the center — which is technically subleased by Bloomingdale’s — focuses on dispersing most of its restaurants across the wings and walkways, just as they would with retail spaces. “It’s always been the family’s intention to present the finest dining at all price points within an exceptional shopping environment.”
The clustered Collage Culinary Experience area, built by developers J+R Group, buzzes with dining activity across two floors. There are multiple places to drink cocktails or to take young children, and it’s all washed in bright natural light, blonde wood, and hip font choices.
Morgan Zhang of J+R Group led the placement of Collage, with the direct intent to bring in an even larger audience of younger, more social media-savvy shoppers and diners to South Coast Plaza. It was Zhang who contacted Eldwin Chua, CEO of Paradise Dynasty’s parent company, Paradise Group, with an offer to expand into California. Not long after seeing Zhang’s email, Chua flew from Singapore to Southern California to iron out specifics. “Within two weeks we sealed the deal,” says Chua. Paradise Dynasty opened in March 2020, and there are already big plans to go after Din Tai Fung in Los Angeles next, in part by opening at the Americana in Glendale; cue the dramatic dumpling wars soundtrack.
“Pre-pandemic, we actually had been looking for opportunities in the States,” says Chua, but few were interested in bringing on an international brand that had yet to be tested for an American audience, despite the group’s proven track record in Singapore. “Now at South Coast Plaza, we really have the platform.” The company is currently considering offers in Texas, New York, and elsewhere.
Winnie Yee-Lakhani is perhaps best known as the Smoke Queen, a rising star in Southern California’s barbecue scene with her own standalone meat-smoking restaurant on the way. Along with her brother, Yee-Lakhani opened Bruxie at Collage Culinary Experience in October 2022. She credits Zhang with having the vision to build something more approachable at South Coast Plaza — and for bringing more women into the culinary fold.
“I put so much of my own money into a place that will never be mine,” says Yee-Lakhani of her franchise location. Her Bruxie outlet is the group’s fifth restaurant. “[Zhang] understands how much of our livelihood is invested. We’re not big corporations,” she says. “All of the concepts here are owner-operated or mom-and-pop. Even Paradise Dynasty isn’t publicly traded.” Also since it’s located at South Coast Plaza, the look is more chic. “No other Bruxie has white marble tables,” she says with a laugh.
For Paradise Dynasty, the jump to the United States has also been profitable. South Coast Plaza has not only brought new attention to the company, it has allowed the Paradise Group to hone in on the American palate, and to change its stateside menu accordingly. “In terms of the taste profile, you need stronger, bolder flavors,” says group CEO Chua. “Compared to Asia, the food has to be 10 to 30 percent more salty in the U.S.” The tweaking is working. “Sales have increased by fivefold from where we started,” says Chua. “Every month, sales are increasing.”
For Santana, who witnessed the plaza’s dining offerings dramatically change over the decades, this moment feels fortuitous. “Vaca is doing fantastic for us, especially with lunch,” he says. “With the museum, it just brings more foot traffic, and we can support the causes we believe in.” The adjacent OCMA has already welcomed more than 100,000 visitors since it opened in October 2022, and is widely seen as yet another cultural hub for the county — and another win for the influential Segerstroms — right alongside South Coast Plaza.
It’s all part of the family’s (and South Coast Plaza’s) ever-evolving footprint. Today the sprawling development is a mix of caviar tastings and waffle sandwiches, daytime dumplings and hard-to-get dinner reservations. With OC Business Journal reporting that South Coast Plaza’s annual revenue report is north of $2 billion, it remains a giant and complicated reflection of Orange County’s own rocky relationship with diversity and wealth and progress — and it all began with a field full of lima beans.