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Scenes From a Mall: The Beverly Center Then and NowEXPAND
Courtesy the Beverly Center

Scenes From a Mall: The Beverly Center Then and Now

The Beverly Center has been "reimagined." That's how Taubman Centers Inc., the corporation that owns the shopping mecca and spearheaded its recent $500 million remodel, describes it in press materials, and it's accurate in the sense that every detail, big and small, seems aimed at reflecting contemporary culture in a new way. Whether or not one thinks this is a good thing probably will depend on a variety of factors — including age, financial status and, most important, whether you're a local — but there's no denying the place has a new appeal.

Like all mall environments in Southern California, this one is full of deep-seated nostalgia for many, especially natives and premillennials. Before it broke ground 36 years ago, the land belonged to the Kiddieland Amusement Park, a place where the children of L.A. who lived west-ish would celebrate their birthdays riding ponies, Ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds.

After the Beverly Center opened in 1982, it was a novel attraction for all ages. It was a favorite destination for lovers of foreign and indie movies, which screened in its 14-screen multiplex on the top level. Many also recall the Bev for its then-hip new restaurant, the Hard Rock Cafe, which was the first in the United States and third in the chain. In addition to serving food, it showcased both local and big bands.

Growing up in L.A. many of us would go to the Beverly Center to snatch up colorful novelties and candy at Heaven, trendy fashion at Contempo Casuals or the pricier punky chick designs of Betsey Johnson. We'd also peek into the fancy shops we could never afford or join our moms at now long-gone department stores like the Broadway and Bullocks. If you didn't hang at the arcade called Starsky's as a kid, you might have danced the night away at clubs housed there in later years with names like Voila, Ava's and Tempest; one was even promoted by Married ... With Children's David Faustino. There were plenty of parties on the roof and in the parking lot (which many cursed because it was hard to get out of) over the years, some for movie premieres, others for product promos. Mostly the upper level was about hanging out, eating and often celebrity-spotting, as the mall's locale made it one of the few places where normal folks could come into contact with the rich and famous.

Scenes From a Mall: The Beverly Center Then and Now
Courtesy the Beverly Center

The youth of today take mall life for granted and probably find it quaint — after all, they buy stuff online, and pretty much hang out online, too — but for older folk a visit to the mall was and kind of still is an experience. Though the Beverly Center looks really different, it also kind of looks the same, so it remains to be seen if it can re-establish itself as a place for experiences again, what with the Grove on Fairfax and Westfield Century City both vying for attention not far away.

The competition both online and from brick-and-mortar shopping hubs definitely took its toll on old Bev over the years, and if you went there anytime in the past couple years it was quite noticeable. The place felt like a neo-modern, very white, kinda sad ghost town.

The reimagined mall retains the same basic aesthetic, but there are some changes that make it feel fresh again. Sparkles/specks in the design are noticeable throughout, even in the selfie-ready elevators (don't forget to choose the floor you want before you get in; there are no buttons inside). There's well-placed greenery and a "Grand Court" area for chilling, with furniture, charging stations and a huge vertical digital LED screen projecting fashionable ads and promos for various shops.

These days mall jaunts are as much about catching a movie at the cineplex or grabbing a bite to eat as they are snagging a cute outfit or wardrobe basic. In a bold move, the Beverly Center did not bring back its movie theaters, or its bustling food court of yore but rather chose to focus on fashion and upscale — if not fine — dining destinations. The most casual eatery is Jeremy Fall's funky diner called Easy's, which is in a pivotal part of the venue, where most of us took the famed escalators into the place back in the day, ending up with the beauty supply store and pet shop (both long gone) in our sightlines. Arriving or sitting and eating here now is likely to provide flashbacks for anyone who grew up going to the retail behemoth.

Other new food places include Nathan Peitso and Laurent Halasz's communal table–adorned Farmhouse; chef Adam Sobel and Michael Mina's Cal Mare; and John Kunkel's Southern fried charmer Yardbird, all of which are on the perimeters of the building. Fast-casual options including Marugame Udon Noodle Bar and the ubiquitous Eggslut round out the grub on the ground level, with more to come.

Scenes From a Mall: The Beverly Center Then and NowEXPAND
Courtesy the Beverly Center

On the media tour last week during the center's big "reveal week," we got to sample some bites from the aforementioned; I'm not gonna lie, there were some tasty alternatives to Wetzel's Pretzels (for those who need salty dough sustenance while power-shopping, there actually is one on a higher floor near the bathrooms). Forever 21 and H&M are still here, too, but they aren't really being touted with the new vibe. The cheapest store we toured was Zara, which William Taubman, chief operating officer of Taubman Centers, said was the biggest one in L.A. and represented the mid-to low-range buying and browsing habits of the mall's customers, rounding out bigger designer purchases. He made sure to point out all the opulent designer storefronts, though, including Versace, Fendi, Dolce & Gabbana, Prada and Louis Vuitton.

During the tour it was clear that Taubman and his colleagues — general manager Ralph Barnes and Robert Taubman, CEO of Taubman Centers Inc. — were excited. They did their homework and delved deep into the psychology of shopping habits, and how the environment plays into it. Everything was considered, too — where a particular store stands, how big the window displays are, how each area is lit, the shapes and shades that the eye observes (even if only peripherally).

The thing they didn't seem to consider was how those of us who used to shop there might view the new look and feel. Or maybe their goal was to make us forget, and for the most part they succeeded. The walk-through fittingly ended at the Apple Store, which seemed like an extension of the building itself. One might suppose the reimagined structure was meant to look like Apple's retail temple, but in fact, the Beverly Center did sexy all-white sterility first. Maybe it was ahead of its time.

The Beverly Center's reimagining couldn't be farther from the Valley Girl/Mallrats/Fast Times at Ridgemont High–style teen scene that shaped so any cultural mindsets in California. That might be OK for Middle America or the Valley, but the goal here is something more sophisticated, something sleek and chic, and more like an enclosed Rodeo Drive. And why not? It's right next to Cedars-Sinai (maybe the priciest hospital in L.A., and where all the celebrities go to give birth or heal post-op/post-OD) and also near Third Street, Robertson Boulevard and, yes, Beverly Hills, with all the mystique that comes with that.

The success of the new Beverly Center will be determined by a few types of modern customer, which Taubman seems very clear about: the locals who grew up here but now have disposable incomes and limited time to spend it, the new generation of tech-savvy shoppers whose attention spans leave little time for nostalgic distraction, and the international visitors seeking a glimpse of Hollywood glamour and escape. All three should leave the mall pretty happy, especially since they redesigned the parking lots, too.

  The Beverly Center, 8500 Beverly Blvd., Beverly Grove; (310) 854-0070, beverlycenter.com.

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