Location, location, location
Your congregation is there for you when you need it, but there are times when you’re tempted to think outside the synagogue
Destination weddings in spots like Hawaii or the Caribbean are a romantic way to start a new life with someone, but changes in the economy and fuel prices are forcing many couples to rethink the concept of getting “married away.” While money may be no object for some couples and their families, they also have to now consider how far their invitees will be willing to travel to be a part of the big day.
Couples living in Southern California are lucky to have some of America’s best wedding escapes just a few hours’ drive away. And better still, many of them either cater specifically to Jewish clientele (from kosher catering to sourcing a rabbi and chuppah) or else are just so fabulous that they have boasted a Jewish following for years.
The best place to start
“The great thing about Jewish weddings today is that
Barrad also advises couples not to neglect the issue of raising a chuppah at the site, as the structures can be difficult to find and some synagogues won’t rent theirs to non-members. Also, if some hotels do offer a chuppah for rent, look at it to see if it will fit into your wedding aesthetically.
However, she notes that many couples are making their own; craft stores and home improvement emporiums offer a wealth of materials that will enable couples to make their own design for the same cost as or less than a rental. She also suggests asking venues to provide photos from other Jewish weddings it has hosted and access to other Jewish couples who have exchanged their vows there.
Once you have all the right questions at hand, here’s a short list of exceptional California venues to consider, including several that provide a variety of services for Jewish couples:
Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina
The Sheraton San Diego features a stunning new wedding lawn adjacent to a marina that’s perfect for erecting an outdoor chuppah, as well as an extensive selection of indoor and outdoor event space with panoramic views of the San Diego Bay and downtown San Diego. The hotel’s on-site wedding planners will cover every detail required for kosher-style weddings, while all four catering managers on staff are proficient in Jewish weddings and the cultural specialties involved with these events, from the ketubah signing to the horah.
Hard Rock Hotel San Diego
Even with its rock ‘n’ roll spirit and location at the entrance of the buzzing Gaslamp Quarter, the Hard Rock Hotel San Diego has the goods and gear Jewish couples want. One of its unique spaces for a wedding is Woodstock, the hotel’s 9,200-square-foot outdoor urban garden, which can accommodate up to 1,000 people as well as a chuppah, dining tables, lounge area and a large dance floor. Before, during and after the wedding, the couple and their guests can party like rock stars, thanks to the 420 suites, 17 “Rock Star” VIP Suites, nightlife destinations created by Rande Gerber and a Nobu restaurant by celebrated chef Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa.
The Prado at Balboa Park
Prado not only offers the splendor of its Balboa Park location, but is owned by a Jewish family (the Cohns). While they don’t offer strictly kosher meals, the management is sensitive to various dietary restrictions and has made a variety of accommodations for the many Jewish couples who have wed there.
In Palm Springs, the Viceroy is ideal not only for its hip Hollywood Regency ambiance but also its hands-on approach to wedding planning.
Saddle Peak Lodge
Although Saddle Peak Lodge is not specifically kosher, the management notes that about half of the weddings they do are for Jewish couples, and they offer a list of nearby resources and vendors to assist couples with their wedding’s special needs. It is also a fitting place for film-buff couples to start their own personal history. Built in 1880 as a hunting lodge, it became an escape for the elite of Golden Age Hollywood, including Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn and Clark Gable. Saddle Peak also takes advantage of nature’s bounty on many fronts, from a kitchen that uses sustainable ingredients from local farms and vendors to a backdrop of trees, waterfalls and the majestic Santa Monica Mountains.
Westlake Village Inn
Halfway between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, the Westlake Village Inn is well suited for couples seeking the detail-oriented luxury of a boutique country inn. There are several garden settings to choose from, from the Lakeside Gazebo to The Waterfall. Couples yearning for the look and feel of a “wedding away” in Europe will love the Mediterraneo Gazebo where a slightly raised Romanesque gazebo takes a “chuppah-like” effect, or the Tuscan Garden.
Lodge at Sonoma
Those who’ve dreamed of a wine country wedding should look into The Lodge at Sonoma, offering the perfect balance of country inn warmth, boutique hotel glamour, Northern California architecture and wine country trappings.
Table for none?
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.
A Moveable (Kosher) Feast
You’ve just spent the morning shooting a television commercial on location, and you’re famished. The rest of the cast and crew are chowing down on hamburgers, but you adhere to the Jewish dietary laws. Will you have to go hungry?
Not to worry. Now Mohammed brings the mountain to you, so to speak. Kosher on Location, a mobile catering company, can send one of its fleet of four self-contained catering trucks to prepare RCC-certified kosher fare at the location of your choice.
You don’t have to be in show biz to use its services. Kosher on Location has catered a bar mitzvah on the beach in Malibu and a bat mitzvah reception at an ice-skating rink.
For the Los Angeles Clippers’ annual Jewish Family Day at the Staples Center, the company set up a kosher concession stand. It also provides daily lunches for the Milken Community High School and the New Community Jewish High School, as well as catering numerous Shabbatons and conferences.
“After going to so many events where the food was predictable and boring, and the locations were predictable and boring, we said, ‘There has to be a better way,'” said Alex Felkai, who founded the business four years ago with his wife, Judy.
Perhaps their most unorthodox gig to date was for Emek Hebrew Academy, providing daily meals during a four-day field trip to the Grand Canyon. Could matzah balls at Mt. Rushmore be far behind?
For more information, call (818) 759-5222.
Star of the Canyon
The Canyon Country Store — the star-studded grocery featured in the older woman/younger man film "Laurel Canyon," starring Frances McDormand — is actually run by two Persian Jews.
Owner David Shamsa and manager Tommy Bina have tried to maintain the store’s authenticity.
Shamsa, who was an influential Persian Jew in Iran during the shah’s regime, was the head of National Iranian Steel Mill Corporation and director of Iran Hotel Corporation, hosting many American officials such as Henry Kissinger, and Sens. Barry Goldwater and Ted Kennedy.
Just a few months before the Islamic revolution, Shamsa fled to the United States and, in 1982, bought the building in Laurel Canyon.
The only store nestled in the verdant Laurel Canyon, Canyon Country Store, built in 1919, has served as a location for several films and is also a hangout for many artists, musician and actors. The cozy, friendly place is reminiscent of a small-town store — whose patrons have included celebrities like Liam Neeson, Sophia Loren and Mick Jagger. Downstairs is a restaurant, Pace ("peace" in Italian), and adjacent is a wood house where Jim Morrison used to live.
Bina told The Journal he feels a responsibility for the entire neighborhood. Together with other locals, he has formed a voluntary group to clean up Laurel Canyon’s surrounding area, for which he has received an award.
"The city doesn’t take care of this area very well," he said. "We do this to protect the environment."
Although he owns more than 11 million square feet of office space, Charles S. Cohen is not your typical New York real estate mogul.
For one, he spends a lot of time in Los Angeles — calling it his second home — and it seems clear why L.A. culture appeals to him. A lifetime film aficionado, Cohen, 49, has made award-winning shorts and written a book on film trivia. Still, he is far from the bohemian artistic types who populate Hollywood — he dresses impeccably, and is conservative and soft-spoken. But he is also a man with a vision who has radical ideas for what real estate should be doing for the community.
"In real estate, people tend to dwell on the importance of location," Cohen told The Journal from his office in New York City. "Location is critical, but what is more important is to connect the location and the building to the community." Cohen takes a very hands-on approach for every building his company, Cohen Brothers Realty Corporation, owns. It is not enough to simply fill an office building with tenants — the building itself has to give something back to the community, he said.
This is why Cohen feels so passionately about his plans to "raise the blue whale" and revitalize the Pacific Design Center (PDC) on the corner of Melrose and San Vicente. It is the second of three design centers that his company has purchased around the country. Cohen, who bought the 12-million-square foot PDC two years ago, envisions a building that will work with local communities, becoming a place where people can learn about design and attend design-related events. He also hopes that the local entertainment community will embrace the state-of-the-art theater in the PDC, and use it to hold first-run film screenings.
Cohen’s community service ambitions extend beyond business to philanthropy. He supports a range of causes from medical institutions such as Cedars-Sinai, to law enforcement, military and religious institutions like Yeshiva University and United Jewish Appeal. On Oct. 25, a day proclaimed by West Hollywood and Gov. Gray Davis to be Charles S. Cohen Day, B’nai B’rith International will honor Cohen at the Regent Beverly Wilshire with its Distinguished Humanitarian Award. (He will also be honored by the organization at a luncheon Nov. 12 at the St. Regis hotel in New York City.)
His business and philanthropic travels have not been curtailed by the attacks on America. "America was founded as a country, as a respite and a home for freedom. That is what is being threatened here, and that is unacceptable. We can’t have our freedoms abridged. I am proud to be an American, and proud to be a Jew, and I am ready to do anything I can to help."
Cohen, who is in the process of establishing his own foundation, said, "I am at the beginning of what I hope will be a long philanthropic career, which I hope will contribute many millions of dollars to good Jewish organizations."
For information and tickets to the Los Angeles or New York events, contact (323) 692-1944.