A model wearing dark lipstick and a necklace fashioned from silverware smiles at me from an in-house advertisement posted at Pacific Place. The ad is elegantly rendered and covers an entire wall. "This place reserved," it informs me, "for an incredible new restaurant."

Along with plain brown paper veiling the doors and windows, several ads shield the empty restaurant formerly known as Stars Bar & Dining, which opened back in October of 1998. The instantly trendy spot had roots in San Francisco, where '80s celebrity chef Jeremiah Tower opened the original Stars and revolutionized New American cuisine in 1984. The Seattle version, however, was owned by the YTC Group, with Tower participating only as a figurehead. The current darkened property has stood silent and unoccupied for a little over a year now, since Stars abruptly shut its doors (and subsequently filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy) in March of 2001. Since then, against the bleak backdrop of a sinking regional economy, there have been no press releases, no signs of construction, not even substantial gossip about what might take its place.

After Stars' grand flop, what could possibly happen next? Who would be willing to take a risk during precarious financial times and open a restaurant (already a high-risk, fiercely competitive industry) next to two other large, popular restaurants (Gordon Biersch, Desert Fire) on the top floor of a mall that doesn't experience as much high volume as Bellevue Square, Northgate, or Southcenter? Is it even possible to sustain a fine-dining destination--white linens, high check averages, a sommelier on staff--next to a cineplex in a shopping mall, albeit a shopping mall that houses Cartier and Tiffany's? Or is it too bizarre for sophisticated diners to enjoy elegant food in a space associated with a food court?

In a Seattle Times business story that ran after Stars' closing, the restaurant's ownership team "cited location for its failure, coupled with poor performance based on budget projections." Translation: Not enough affluent diners were consistently eating at Stars, and its location in a mall, even a nice mall, meant being away from street-level foot traffic--fatal in the restaurant business. Even designer food and a hip bar scene couldn't make Stars an urgent destination; and being an urgent destination with steady repeat business is the only way an upscale restaurant with complex overhead costs can survive.

I called Pacific Place Marketing Director Lynn Beck to find out who was interested in the property, who Pacific Place was courting, but she wouldn't comment until a lease was signed. She was reassuring but impenetrable, citing "prospects" and "the right fit." "With the [current] economy," she said, "you just can't be in a hurry." (In the meantime, the Seattle International Film Festival will use the space as a main box-office location, giving the bare room a temporary facelift and sense of relevance. "Maybe [SIFF] will create some good karma for that space," Beck said optimistically.)

So if performance-art dining like Stars won't work, what will? What is the "right fit"? Like it or not, it will most probably be what's now called an "upscale casual" concept chain, such as the Cheesecake Factory (an enormous success on Seventh and Pike), P. F. Chang's China Bistro (with epic lines at Bellevue Square), Outback Steakhouse, or anything from Darden Restaurants (Olive Garden, Red Lobster). Places like these do well in unstable times because of affordable prices, familiar flavors, and a working-class ambience. It's not even the food--fresh, perfunctory, solid meals--it's the safety. "Safety cuisine" is a brilliant business formula, and it's convinced an entire nation to wait in long lines, clutching a vibrating restaurant pager, for calamari or pasta or grilled chicken. This is what will have the best chance of thriving where Stars faltered, and it will be interesting to see if Pacific Place management accepts this bottom-line reality, or if it continues to hold out for another elite tenant with an award-winning wine list. It's difficult, you know, to be sensible when you've got stars in your eyes.