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TWO RESTAURATEURS ARE TAKING A GAMBLE ON THEATER DISTRICT

News food editor Janice Okun today begins a new column that will focus on trends in food, nutrition and local dining.

WESTERN NEW Yorkers like to eat. And Western New Yorkers like to eat well. The question remains . . .

Do Western New Yorkers like to eat well downtown?

No one is denying that there have been some disappointments along this line. Even Alan Dewart, a partner in Theater Place, admits that upscale restaurants may have a tough time in downtown Buffalo.

"Western New Yorkers are extremely value-oriented and the market is relatively small."

Yet several upscale restaurants, such as Rue Franklin West and Lord Chumley's, are prospering. So many people are optimistic.

Surprisingly, Tim Swift, proprietor of the late Harlan's, is one of them. Harlan's, a glamorous restaurant, opened in Theater Place in 1982 when Main Street was drowning in mud and cluttered with orange construction fences. It hung on valiantly until last February, but finally left local boosters and gourmets in despair when it closed because of financial problems.

"Don't write downtown off, by any means," Swift says now. "I think we came in too early.

"It's smart to come in on the ground floor, yes -- but we were in the sub-basement in 1982."

He pauses.

"The ground floor is now."

Two restaurateurs who will be heartened to hear that are Dorothy Johnston and Michael A. Warner, who plan to open a fine-dining restaurant in July. It will be on the site of Harlan's.

They have an excellent track record. Ms. Johnston put the restaurant in Albright-Knox Art Gallery on the map and is a co-owner of the popular Cafe in the Square in Snyder. Warner, who has worked for almost all the major hotel chains, manages busy May Jen on Elmwood Avenue.

If all the i's get dotted and dollar signs get crossed, they'll put their combined creativity into the new restaurant.

And are they scared? Yes, a little.

"It's lucky there are two of us," says Ms. Johnston. "That way we can alternate.

"When I'm up, Michael gets cold feet. When I get nervous, he's confident."

Never mind. The partners seems to have their plans well in hand.

Their restaurant probably will be called Legend's. It will feature an "eclectic" menu with entrees starting around $10.

The theme: fine dining with a comfortable feeling, says Warner, who will run the front of the house.

"Clients will be welcome whether they wear slacks or minks. No one will look at them strangely."

"A kinder, gentler ambiance," agrees Ms. Johnston. She will set up the menu and is planning beautiful but substantial food. "Western New Yorkers like satisfying food."

A local young chef from a country club is a likely choice.

Both partners are quick to list the advantages of the Harlan's site. "Great space," Warner says. "Though we'll probably do some freshening. And the kitchen is terrific. There is plenty of room for flaming."

Although neither Ms. Johnston nor Warner is a native Western New Yorker, both are committed to downtown and both live in the city.

Problems? The two are nothing if not realistic.

"Western New York is an oversaturated market," admits Ms. Johnston. There is a lot of competition. One major problem will be to develop a loyal clientele even when the Shea's Buffalo and Studio Arena theaters are closed.

Kimberley Williamson, assistant director of Buffalo Place Inc., says the climate for restaurants in downtown Buffalo has improved dramatically.

"My personal feeling is that Harlan's' timing was off," she says. "We are starting to see a turnaround. There are new developments, like the Key Bank Towers with 1,500 people in it. Three new sidewalk cafes are planning to open in the Theater District this summer. At a minimum of $18,000 per cafe, that represents real commitment."

Dewart says Western New Yorkers are certainly willing to come downtown, although they may be, he admits, slightly more "destination-oriented" than they are in the suburbs.

"We see big restaurants of 10,000 square feet or more (such as Crawdaddy's, Chef's and the Spaghetti Warehouse) showing an ability to gross over $2 million in annual sales," Dewart says. "We also see restaurants half that size doing three-quarters to $1 million.

"We have restaurants like the Bijou Grill doing the volume of restaurants twice their size.

"You've got to give people what they want -- moderate prices, trendy food and good drinks."

Dewart feels that it is most important that a restaurant be unique. "Dining today tends to be an entertaining experience," he said, "not just an eating experience."

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