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Wednesday, June 15, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Taste of the Town

A Bellevue Trader Vic's

Seattle Times restaurant critic

I thought my neighbors Tom and Barb Robinson were the only Trader Vic's-ionados willing to travel the globe for a Tiki Tiki Puka. They've been crying into their pupu platters — eaten elsewhere, unfortunately — since "Trader Vic" Bergeron's Polynesian palace closed in Seattle's Westin hotel back in 1991. So, as it turns out, have Werner and Rosanne Sondheim of Bellevue.

Like the Robinsons, they've traveled to "The Trader's" in Europe and made pilgrimages to Trader Vic's in Emeryville, Calif. — where the company got its start in 1938. And they, too, have fond memories of Trader Vic's original Seattle site (née "The Outrigger" in the Benjamin Franklin Hotel, later razed to make way for the Westin's second tower, where Trader Vic's relocated). It was there that the Sondheims were engaged in 1955. Which helps explain the emotional attachment and why Werner called to say he'd heard Trader Vic's was coming back to town — truth or rumor?

Well, hold on to your mai tais, my friends, because Trader Vic's, now a $50 million empire of company-owned and franchised restaurants, is slated to open late this year in the Lincoln Square complex in Bellevue.

"Many prominent citizens of Seattle and Bellevue who knew Trader Vic's from way, way back are investing in the project," notes Hans Richter, president and CEO of Trader Vic's, who has been with the company since 1969 and still has the blueprint of The Outrigger's kitchen layout ("It cost about 10 percent of what a kitchen costs today!").

"Ours is a little different from the normal franchise," Richter explained. "We stay involved, building the restaurant and assisting the owners in developing the management team and training restaurant personnel."

Among the faces behind this new version of the old favorite are local restaurateur Larry Hamlin (who helped find the $3.5 million to get the job done) and restaurant consultant Arnold Shain. Paul Reder, owner of Bellevue's Tap House Grill (550 106th Ave. N.E., 425-467-1730), is on tap as managing partner, says Richter.

Bellevue's new Trader Vic's will have the distinctive look of Trader Vic's everywhere, Richter says — right down to the "famous" Chinese oven.

And making certain that longtime patrons like the Robinsons and the Sondheims will feel doubly at home, he points out that the Bellevue restaurant will hold a prominent place in Lincoln Square: directly opposite the entrance to a new 337-room Westin hotel.

La Vita gets more Bella in Magnolia

Belltown's La Vita è Bella Cafe (2411 Second Ave., Seattle; 206-441-5322) soon will have a Magnolia Village sibling, taking up a spot recently vacated by the short-lived Mim's Italian Market. Mondello, the new 40-seat cafe at 2425 33rd Ave. W., is scheduled to open late this month. Named for a beach town in Palermo, Mondello "will be like La Vita è Bella, but even more original, more Sicilian," says co-owner Corino Bonjrada, whose mama, Enza, will introduce fresh pasta to his new restaurant's menu.

If you don't know La Vita è Bella, you should: It's a colorful cafe serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, offering a world of laid-back charm, sidewalk tables, reasonably priced pasta and panini and an adjacent pizzeria (unfortunately open during dinner hours only). In short: It's a cafe well worth cloning.

What moved Bonjrada and his business partner Guiseppe Forte to head for Magnolia? "We live there!" he explains, noting that the partners expect to split their time between venues. While hours haven't been finalized, Mondello is slated to open for lunch and dinner, with Sunday brunch a happy possibility.

Meanwhile, over on Eastlake: It's a wrap!

An e-mail from faithful reader Bob Margulis offered "good news on the burrito front": the opening of a second Burrito Express (2701 Eastlake Ave. E.; 206-838-7090) in a little spot just south of Daly's Drive-In.

For this newcomer we can thank owner Robert "Roberto" Abergel, a French-Italian character-and-a-half whose name will be familiar to fans of the original Topolino's (a now-defunct pizza parlor at Third and Pike in Seattle) and its newer Bellevue incarnation (106321 N.E. Eighth St., 425-637-7770).

Like his Pinehurst neighborhood original (12339 15th Ave. N.E.; 206-364-0865), this bright yellow bastion of burritodom offers a take-out counter, a handful of stools, a world of terrific quick-service Mexican fare and the mouthy motto: "Our Burrito is Bigger Than Their Chihuahua." While that may well be, I'm partial to their soft tacos ($2-$3 each) and homemade horchata ($1.50). Burrito Express is open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily at both locations.

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or taste@seattletimes.com. Find more columns at seattletimes.com/nancyleson

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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