Wall of Fame Dusted by Acrimony

Scavenged portraits add to animosities over a restaurant’s demise. Photo by Bill Atkins.

Celebrity likenesses add cache as wall adornments in dining establishments such as New York’s Sardi’s or one of the locations of The Palm restaurant.

But the wall of fame many Laguna Beach residents aspired to, sketches of loyal patrons inside Michael Kang’s now-closed restaurant Five Feet, is toppling under controversy akin to sniping in a celebrity divorce. Just days after a marshal posted an eviction notice on the restaurant’s door, the wall of portraits was partially demolished and now the landlord is threatening legal action.

Last month, when the restaurant served its final entrée, Laguna Beach residents lost “more than a hospitality institution,” said loyal patron Bill O’Hare. Kang and his restaurant “were and are pillars of this community, and a lot of the community is represented on the wall,” he said, referring to an interior wall covered with several hundred portraits rendered by various artists over Kang’s 25 years as a pioneer serving Asian fusion dishes.

One of the local sketch artists, Bill Atkins, who was responsible for rendering the likenesses of about 100 regulars between 1994 and 2004, wondered what would happen to his artwork when Kang left. He got a partial answer last week when walking by and seeing gaping holes where portraits had been.

Some former customers contacted Kang about retrieving their portraits. Touched by their desire to preserve these mementos of Five Feet, Kang authorized the patrons to hire a contractor to remove their portraits over the Labor Day weekend when he too planned to clear out. Since “we put up the wall ourselves,” he said, he didn’t see a problem.

Landord Don Miller disagreed and is considering suing Kang for damages, said attorney Martin Eramo. Kang’s lease stipulated that tenant improvements became the property of the landlord. Tearing out the wall violated the lease, Eramo contended.

Enmity over the artwork is only the latest point of disagreement between the property owner and Kang, who had haggled since January negotiating over a new lease.

Eramo’s wife Shirley, the real estate agent for the landlord, also claimed that in addition to the gaping holes where portraits had been removed, the property “was disgusting,” strewn with “trash and garbage everywhere.”

Kang disagreed with the characterization. He had “left the place in pretty good condition,” he said, with the only food remaining set out for a local soup kitchen to pick up.

The dispute should not sour Five Feet’s legacy, said O’Hare, noting Kang’s generosity hosting community events for organizations such as SchoolPower. O’Hare, the immediate past president of the SchoolPower endowment, and his wife, school board member Theresa O’Hare, have been patrons since the late 1980s.

After the Laguna firestorm of 1993, Kang underwrote the annual Brighter Stars fundraiser, which he co-chaired with Theresa O’Hare, to pay for counseling kids affected by the fire. Because most of the costs were absorbed by Kang himself, or by his suppliers, O’Hare said the net was quite high. While the event was discontinued, about a quarter of SchoolPower’s $2 million endowment is a result of Kang’s fundraisers, O’Hare said.

Even the portraits on the wall were a source of charitable giving. Kang invited loyal customers to an annual Chinese New Year celebration. In the course of the evening, names of those in attendance were drawn. The lucky name received a portrait on the wall. If the patron already had a wall portrait, they could auction off the lucky ticket and proceeds would go to a charity, often SchoolPower.

The cachet of having your likeness on the wall of a favorite haunt requires commitment from both the patron and the establishment.

The walls of the original Palm in New York, established in 1926, were restored in 1995 in order to properly preserve the hand-drawn sketches.

Five Feet’s patrons also revered the portraits. “The people would always want to sit under their portrait – it was kind of a tradition,” said Atkins.

 “We’d love to be able to get ours,” said O’Hare.





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