May 1, 2008
Table for none?
Revolving door of kosher restaurants closings
It was to be the restaurant that would change kosher dining in Los Angeles.|
In December 2006, the Prime Grill, a branch of the popular New York kosher steakhouse, opened its doors in Beverly Hills promising a new experience in kosher dining. "There's never been a kosher restaurant like this in Southern California," Samuel Franco, the restaurant's director of operations, told The Journal at the time. "New York has always been ahead of L.A. in certain ways. With the Prime Grill's opening, L.A. now catches up."
But little more than a year after it opened, rumors spread that the luxurious restaurant on Rodeo Drive was about to close.
"There is absolutely no truth to this rumor," general manager Mikael Choukroun said in January, noting that the restaurant was adjusting its menu to more moderate pricing.
But by February, the doors were closed and a message on the voicemail said, "The Prime Grill regrets to inform that due to rainwater damage from the recent storms, we will be temporarily closed."
Numerous calls to the New York restaurant management (including owner Joey Allaham) have not been returned, and the Beverly Hills locale now appears closed for good, its phone line disconnected.
And the Prime Grill is not the only kosher restaurant that has closed in recent weeks. Mamash, an Asian fusion restaurant in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, also closed in March, after opening only last December. And Pico Boulevard's 15-year staple, the Yemenite restaurant The Magic Carpet, has closed, as well.
Why are all these kosher restaurants closing? What does it take to make a successful kosher restaurant in Los Angeles?
Prime Grill's problem, many say, was the prices. The owners seemed to recognize the problem and began offering lunch and happy hour specials toward the end of the restaurant's short run. Others say it was the location -- off the "strip" (Pico-Robertson).
But the Prime Grill's downfall also might have been the image presented as its selling point: its outsider status.
"The bottom line is that owners have to be there -- you can't manage a kosher restaurant from New York," said one successful kosher restaurant owner who asked that his name be withheld. "Restauranting is a passion -- it's not just a business."
New York cannot be duplicated in any market -- and that includes the kosher restaurant business, said Errol Fine, owner of Pat's Restaurant, a high-end kosher venue on Pico that has outlived others for the last 15 years.
"The market is different here," he said.
"I think it's more common to go out to dinner in New York than it is in L.A.," Fine said, because New York has 10 times the kosher population. "There's a saturation point. Maybe there's not enough population to support all these kosher restaurants that have sprung up -- there's only so much of a kosher pie that gets divided. People have to make their choices."
Most agree that the kosher restaurant business in Los Angeles is not easy.
"It's a really hard game -- the community is a really hard community to satisfy," said Warren Bregman, an architect and contractor who was one of the three partners at Mamash. "Overheads are the killer -- that's what killed Prime Grill, too."
He said location wasn't the problem -- Mamash was situated on the south side of Pico Boulevard near Doheny Boulevard -- but finances were. The restaurant practically closed before it opened, the partners having underestimated costs. And kosher restaurants cannot survive on the kosher clientele alone, Bregman said.
"If you're going to do high-end you have to do more corporate involvement," he said. They'd planned to attract the Fox Studios and Century City crowd in their more than 160-square-foot space.
Every restaurateur seems to have a unique economic plan to make it work. Mamash's owners thought they would draw the corporate clientele; Prime Grill hoped for celebs like Paris Hilton and Larry King. The Magic Carpet's Nili Goldstein believes it's all about catering.
"A kosher restaurant has to establish a catering business," she said, because it has to be closed on Friday evenings and Saturdays -- the main profit days for non-kosher restaurants.
"You lose Friday and Saturday, you're left with Sunday, and you take away Jewish holidays -- it doesn't leave much for the owner to survive," she said.
When one of her three business partners died three years ago, she cut down on catering -- which should ideally be 15 percent of the business.
"There are a lot of non-licensed people operating catering businesses," she said -- non-restaurant owners who provide food at shul and private events -- cutting into restaurant profits.
But the poor economy, difficult parking situation and increased competition also made her eager to sell. With the Pico-Olympic parking proposal, which would limit evening parking and hurt businesses like Magic Carpet, Goldstein decided it was time to get out. She sold her business to an Indian restaurant.
Even as she did, Delice Bakery opened its own restaurant across the street. It was perfect timing.
Julian Bohbot had been trying to buy the lot next to his French bakery since he opened Delice in 2001. He finally secured a 40-year lease and opened the Delice Bistro in March. The French steakhouse is centered around a faux Eiffel Tower that disappears into a circular crevice painted to look like the sky, and the dim lighting and close seating -- fitting 80-85 people -- give the place a bustling but cozy feel. It's haimish -- warm; kind of like the two restaurants Bohbot ran in Paris.
Although it's too soon to tell whether Delice Bistro will be a success, in the weeks before Passover the restaurant was full. Bohbot said he pays attention to the menu -- and prices.
"I am the cheapest kosher restaurant in the U.S.," he claimed, noting that his steak is priced at less than $30. Another new restaurant is also an incarnation of its former self. La Gondola, at Wilshire and Crescent Heights boulevards, was a favorite lunch spot for Jewish Federation and Israeli consulate staff, as well as other business professionals in an area without kosher haunts, between the heavily Orthodox Hancock Park and Pico-Robertson neighborhoods. When the landlords sold the building, the restaurant relocated to the site of another kosher restaurant, Kolbeh, a Persian meat restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard and Weatherly (one block east of Doheny), which had been looking to sell. La Gondola closed for just two weeks, and reopened there.
"Everything's the same," said Nir Weinblut, who owns La Gondola with his mother. They added more staff for the larger, 100-to-150-seat space, and now offer a full bar, as well as live music on Thursday and Saturday nights, when they plan to have a "lounge-feel," he said. And because it's off the Pico strip, they hope that a different crowd will come there.
"We're getting more people from Beverlywood," he said.
Another solution to opening a successful kosher restaurant? Open in the Valley.
In the last few months a number of kosher restaurants have opened in the San Fernando Valley, including Bocco, a steakhouse and lounge which took over Tempo, the famed Israeli hangout, in December 2007. Kosher Chicks, a Middle Eastern restaurant, opened in Tarzana eight months ago.
Does the tough economy and failure of other kosher restaurants bother these new entrepreneurs?
"If you lay a good foundation it will grow even through hard economic times," said Sol Shaolian of Kosher Chicks. "There's risk involved," he said. But now that a mall is being built next door, and a Whole Foods is being built in the area, he's not worried about traffic.
Gill Dayan, owner of Bocca, which seats 185 in the main room and 60 in the private dining room, doesn't seem worried either.
"We're the only upscale kosher steakhouse in the Valley," he said, noting that they get clientele from the other side of the hill, as well.
He used the tried-and-true Left Coast assessment: "Many compare our restaurant to the top restaurants in New York."