Saddle Ranch Chop House

Dominique Llanes, left, and Gina Archie enjoy a cotton candy tower in one of lounge areas at the newly opened Saddle Ranch Chop House at the Triangle in Costa Mesa. (Don Leach, Daily Pilot / May 15, 2013)

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The Saddle Ranch Chop House and El Corazón de Costa Mesa, two new restaurants at The Triangle, held small ribbon-cutting ceremonies earlier this week.

Costa Mesa Chamber of Commerce employees, city officials and others posed for the grand-opening photos — complete with the big scissors — for the Western-themed steakhouse restaurant and Mexican food establishment Wednesday afternoon.

Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger and representatives from the offices of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa) and Assemblyman Allan Mansoor (R-Costa Mesa) were also present at the downtown center to hand out certificates of recognition.

Saddle Ranch, which first opened its doors last month, purports a "rock meets Western" concept in its 7,880-square-foot space that also features a mechanical bull, two bars and an outdoor pool table. Wood signs with text such as "Ride a Bull / Meet a Nurse" line the wall.

Costa Mesa's Saddle Ranch is the chain's fourth restaurant and the only one in Orange County. The others are in West Hollywood, Universal City and Glendale, Ariz. Saddle Ranch replaces Chronic Cantina, which was part of the Chronic Tacos chain.

Employees said Wednesday that the restaurant is already very busy on Fridays and Saturdays, with long lines and standing-room only situations onto the outside patio, which has created a difficult parking situation for guests and employees alike.

The 5,560-square-foot El Corazón is the first of its kind and, organizers said, potentially the first of a chain. The restaurant is designed to resemble beachside dining found in Mexican resort towns such as Cabo San Lucas.

El Corazón replaces Upper Crust Pizza Works and Johnny Rockets.

The Black Knight Gastro Lounge and Olive Branch Wood Fired Pizza also recently opened at The Triangle. Black Knight is a revamped version of Little Knight, a once-popular dive bar on East 17th Street that closed in August.

Planning Commissioner Rob Dickson said he and his wife saw many "dead" times during their frequent visits to The Triangle, but that with the new additions, things seem to be turning around for the historically struggling center.

"It's a long time coming," he said, expressing hope that the success would spread to the other downtown environs.

"We came here on a Saturday night for dinner and we brought our son," Dickson added. "And my wife's first comment to me was, 'It's a parallel universe,' because it was completely packed."

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Part of a renovation effort

The downtown center near the end of the 55 Freeway opened in 1992 as Triangle Square and has had its share of ownership changes and struggle, especially in the years prior to the 2008 recession after it lost major tenants such as Gap, Barnes & Noble, Niketown and Virgin Megastore.

In a rebranding effort, its Newport Beach-based owner and manager, Greenlaw Partners, bestowed the center last year with a slightly adjusted name: The Triangle. It also shifted the center's focus to dining and entertainment over retail.

The new name was one part of a master plan that city officials approved in spring 2012.

The master plan has included about $25 million worth of interior and exterior improvements: new landscaping, new colors, improvements to the tenants' spaces, a new signage plan and additional lighting in the parking garage, as well as a valet station there.

It's been extensive, said Don Lamm with Greenlaw. "Electrical, plumbing — you name it."

"Leasing is going extraordinarily well," he added. "It's a real success in the downtown. It's been overwhelmingly popular already."

New businesses are still on the way for The Triangle.

Bowling alley Tavern + Bowl and sushi restaurant H20 Sushi & Izakaya are expected to open this year.