At AnQi Gourmet Bistro at South Coast Plaza, among the most coveted spots are two rows of plush cushions ensconced on an elevated glass platform, providing a prime view of the dining room scene. But at least four to six times a year, the platform is fully exposed and bare, gleaming under spotlights as its sexier alter ego: a 66-foot runway.
This restaurant catwalk is the brainchild of Elizabeth An, who has carved out her spot in Orange County as a major supporter of fashion and style events since she opened AnQi in December 2009. An, who divides her time between homes in Corona del Mar and Beverly Hills, is bringing her runway-ready restaurant concept to the Beverly Hills/West Hollywood area, where the House of An – her family’s restaurant group – plans to open another AnQi later this year.
The runway may seem no more than an astute business strategy, given that Bloomingdale’s and the stores of South Coast Plaza are mere steps away. But for An, the catwalk is far more personal – it embodies her true love: fashion. “I have always loved fashion,” An said. “In my last life, before I had the restaurant, I had a boutique in San Francisco.”
That shop was Mondiela, which she opened in 1989 in Union Square and operated for several years on Sutter Street, next to the famous men’s store Wilkes Bashford. Before she owned Mondiela, An started out on the sales floor at Emporium Capwell department store and worked in the stockroom of Maxima, a style-forward boutique at the time with lines such as Prada, Luciano Soprani, Moschino and Gianfranco Ferre. She became a saleswoman, the buyer and, eventually, the owner of Maxima, which she renamed Mondiela.
Even when she was running Mondiela, she also was helping her family at the House of An operate two restaurants – Thanh Long and Crustacean. The House of An expanded into Southern California in 1997 with the second Crustacean, in Beverly Hills, and in 2009 with AnQi in Costa Mesa.
Which brings us to the genesis of the runway in the dining area.
Bloomingdale’s then-CEO Michael Gould had approached An with the idea of opening a high-end restaurant across from Charlie Palmer within the Bloomingdale’s building at South Coast Plaza.
“I was inspired by the concept of dinner and a show in the old days – you get dressed up, you go to dinner, you see a show,” An said. “When I came down here (to Costa Mesa), I didn’t really know South Coast Plaza. I walked around and thought oh, my God, there are these phenomenal stores here and the plaza really rivals Rodeo Drive. Really, for shopping, I’m all about efficiency and practicality. Here, it’s so easy and practical. I said to myself, if I did restaurant, wouldn’t it be great if I could bring in the best of what’s surrounding me? It’s great for business, as well, because your client base is there. So if I were going to the concept of dinner and a show, why not couture and cuisine?”
The restaurant has since become the venue for a long list of fashion shows, some of them charity events, others to showcase local talent from schools such as the Art Institute of California. In February alone, the Barbara Bui boutique held a spring mini-fashion show and benefit, and An co-hosted the reopening of the Bottega Veneta, with hors d’oeuvres and cocktails supplied by AnQi.
For An, the most memorable fashion event since the restaurant debuted was Cartier’s lunar new year celebration in 2011, in which the models wore the French jeweler’s lavish showpieces, luxurious red ensembles and a horizontal stripe of red makeup applied across the face like a mask.
“South Coast Plaza is fortunate to have Elizabeth An’s visionary concept that elevates dining, supports fashion and excites diners,” said Debra Gunn Downing, executive director for marketing at South Coast Plaza. “We have enjoyed many partnerships with AnQi involving runway shows in the restaurant. It provides a great platform for exposure for South Coast Plaza and our retailers and always results in sales.”
Not surprisingly, An’s love for fashion is visible in her style choices. She often is tastefully turned out – never ostentatious or overdone – in Dior. She started wearing more Dior after Raf Simons took over as designer two years ago, she said. “His designs are classic but have a flair.”
She has her pick of the best designer names, but the most precious items of clothing she’s ever owned are the “curtain pants” she wore as a girl. “My mom had to go to the Salvation Army … and they would give her fabrics that were used for curtains,” An said. They were all that the Ans could afford after leaving their family wealth behind when they fled Vietnam.
“We knew how hard our mom worked, so we would never tell her, ‘Mom, don’t make me any more curtain pants,’” she said. At a young age, Elizabeth An understood the power of clothing, having been constantly teased for unusual clothes that didn’t look like what everyone else was wearing. “In a sense, that’s why I loved fashion,” An said.
She’s also sentimental about a stash of iconic ’90s designer clothes she picked out and kept before she closed Mondiela to devote time to the restaurant business and to raising her children. The collector’s pieces, including a $20,000 beaded Costume National short dress that she said was too small for her, were simply were too beautiful to part with. She is having vitrines made for them and other vintage items in her walk-in closet at her new home that’s being built in Beverly Hills.
As a young girl, she wanted to dress like everyone else. As a fashion-loving adult, she’s unafraid to wear something that everyone else isn’t wearing and prefers to pick out items that fit her personal style. An still hopes to open a boutique in the future, but for the time being, the runway will have to do as her footbridge from the world of food to the world of fashion. Her dream is to cross that bridge one day and make it all the way to the other side.
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