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Nothing lazy about this dog

Restaurant gears up to open in Westfield Valencia Town Center

Posted: November 24, 2009 10:45 p.m.
Updated: November 25, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Lazy Dog chefs get to know the kitchen at the new restaurant location in The Patios at the Westfield Valencia Town Center.

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The restaurant business is in Chris Simms' blood. So it was a natural post-college decision to choose between diving into the world of Wall Street finance or coming home to California and sinking his teeth into the world of food.

It was almost 10 years ago he started planning what has become his life. In 2003, after he'd spent years working in restaurants and three years of development, the first Lazy Dog Cafe opened in Huntington Beach.

When it comes to experience, Simms, 35, had some good knowledge on which to draw. His father and grandfather founded Mimi's Cafe, and his father partnered with him to launch Lazy Dog.

The first week of December, the doors are scheduled to open on the fifth Lazy Dog location, at the new Patios section of Westfield Valencia Town Center.

On Tuesday, the spacious Craftsman-style restaurant was buzzing with activity, from servers and cooks going through training, to contractors putting the finishing touches on the place.

Simms' idea was to develop a restaurant that provided a middle ground between "mass casual" restaurants like Applebee's and Chili's, and more upscale eateries such as Cheesecake Factory and P.F. Chang's. The average bill, per person, is in the $15 range.

Starting with the menu - which has become a blend of Italian, Mediterranean and South American influences - next came the rustic design, which includes an open, high-ceilinged interior, a bar with 21 beers on tap and a dog-friendly outside patio. Large photos of the Simms family's dogs adorn the walls.

"It just fit really well," he said of the eatery's dog-friendly policy. "It makes it very family-friendly."

Simms said the Lazy Dog name conveys its laid-back, relaxed and welcoming atmosphere.

While the design and menus of the five restaurants - the others are in Huntington Beach, Orange, Thousand Oaks and Torrance - are fairly similar, Simms said each one has different decorative touches as well as special menu items.

Simms said his most frequently eaten menu item is the hummus trio platter, and his occasional splurge is Lazy Dog's bleu cheese-topped steak.

The menu has been developed by chef Gabriel Caliendo, who Simms lured from his position as executive sous chef at the Ritz-Carlton in Laguna Niguel.

More important than past restaurant experience are ingrained people skills in his employees, he said.

"You can teach a person how to be a server, but you can't teach them how to have hospitality in their blood," he said.

As CEO, the South Bay resident spends much of his time in meetings, working on business development and visiting each of the restaurants.

Deciding on setting up shop in Santa Clarita Valley was a no-brainer, Simms said. His wife grew up here, and still has myriad friends and family who've kept telling him to find a local home for Lazy Dog.

Located at the entrance to the new Patios section of the mall, the restaurant takes up a prime piece of real estate.

Simms doesn't talk about grand plans for the Lazy Dog brand. He wants to take things "restaurant by restaurant."

He refuses to call it a chain, instead referring to it as a group of restaurants.

His eyes light up when he talks about the successes of the last six years, and the thrill of seeing real customer satisfaction.

"We really just try to make (the dining experience) special," he said. "People deserve that."

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