LAX restaurant takes flight again

Nov. 12--The Space Age-style Encounter Restaurant at Los Angeles International Airport is scheduled to reopen today, allowing visitors to look out the window and catch a glimpse of construction workers shoring up the iconic Theme Building.

But the restaurant's 360-degree, panoramic views of runways, airplanes and the Pacific Ocean will be partially eclipsed by scaffolding that now envelopes the spidery structure.

While construction continues on the outside of the Theme Building until fall 2008, improvements are finished inside the Encounter, complete with a fresh coat of paint, new multicolored carpet and a new set of blue and red chairs in the dining room.

"Since there were renovations being done to the outside of the restaurant, we decided to spend a little money on the inside and give it a new face," said Kenneth Merritt, operations manager for the restaurant since 2001.

The first sign of trouble at the Theme Building came in late February, when a 1,000-pound piece of stucco fell from one of the upper arches and crashed into the structure's main platform, just a few feet from the Encounter Restaurant's roof.

Nobody was hurt.

By early March, airport engineers examined the tops of the arches and found rust spreading through the metal support system, likely from water that seeped past the plaster seams and rusted the underlying metal structure.

As a precaution, diners were escorted from the restaurant during the dinner rush. No one has been back to eat since.

All the white plaster has been removed from the Theme Building's arches as crews examine and reinforce the steel cores as part of a $10 million repair project.

"It's kind of scary to be in here because of all the construction going on," said Zarmina Bashir, who has worked as a waitress at Encounter for three years.

"I mean, we know it's safe," she said. "But if people walk by and see all this, they might be scared to come in."

That fear has prompted the restaurant's operators to reopen for only a few hours each day until the clientele builds up again, said Connie Bass, marketing director.

The restaurant will be open daily for lunch from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and for dinner from 4 to 9:30 p.m. Phone and Internet reservations will help gauge whether to stay open longer, Bass said.

"We've been getting calls from people around the world asking about the progress when the restaurant will reopen," Bass said. "We were told the scaffolding will be up for a while, which is one reason we're easing back into our schedule."

The Theme Building, recognizable worldwide because of film and television exposure, was built in the 1950s at a cost of $2.2 million, finally opening in 1961.

The building was last renovated in 1999, when the platform's underside and the bottom of the restaurant were shored up at a cost of $3 million.

"The arches weren't exposed back then, but I still feel totally safe here," said Eleanor Ramos, 37, a waitress at Encounter for more than a decade. "It just feels good to be back."

The City Council designated the Theme Building as a cultural and historic monument in 1992, meaning it cannot be significantly altered.

That has posed a challenge to architects and engineers as they examine ways to make Americans with Disabilities Act improvements at the Theme Building, according to Airport Commissioner Fernando Torres-

Gil, a survivor of childhood polio who uses crutches and a wheelchair.

"It was unique when it was built, but our staff is looking at accessibility with the boundaries of working with an historic structure," Torres-Gil said. "I want to make full use of all the facilities here, so my disability allows me to have special insight into what needs to be improved."

Torres-Gil said ADA improvements are also part of the $720million renovation of the Tom Bradley International Terminal, where airline ticket counters and restrooms will be upgraded.

Efforts are also under way to make the airport's parking lot shuttles more accessible for wheelchairs, according to Torres-Gil.

"I'm a guinea pig because I use my wheelchair and crutches through the terminal to see what else can be done," Torres-Gil said. "We're taking this golden opportunity to make this a user-friendly facility for anyone with an impairment or disability."

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