December 11, 2018

Bernstein and Starr’s restaurants taking over Fairfax District

Both Bludso’s Bar-&-Que on La Brea Avenue and The Golden State on Fairfax Avenue are a couple of the rare restaurants where men feel comfortable eating alone. It’s not that these solo male diners comprise the majority of the clientele, but they’re always there — a phenomenon seen more at fast-food joints or other types of establishments best not described in detail here. And their presence reflects how co-owners Jason Bernstein and James Starr deftly interpret the needs and wants of their customers and the neighborhoods where they’ve set up shop. 

Bernstein and Starr are equally at ease talking about deli food, local farmers markets, obscure craft beer and taco trucks. And, being secular Jews who grew up in Los Angeles, they are also uniquely positioned to straddle the tightly juxtaposed worlds that now occupy the Fairfax District, with its still-overt yet waning Jewish identity, and a shifting new culture taking hold along the avenue. 

Cofax coffee shop, the third and newest of the pair’s enterprises, boasts arguably the most contextually relevant portmanteau food-business name in existence, with its references both to its Fairfax setting and its product, while simultaneously paying homage to an American-Jewish and local sports icon. (Bernstein and Starr are baseball fanatics, too.)

How these two came to own their first no-frills, high-quality restaurant in a neighborhood some might refer to as the ’Chud (or what restaurant critic Jonathan Gold has dubbed the “Dude District”), is a somewhat classic California case of reinvention. Both are Los Angeles natives who have been friends since their days at Crossroads School in Santa Monica, and it took just a quick conversation for Bernstein, 35, and Starr, 34, to derail their respective professional tracks in marketing and advertising in favor of creating a restaurant that, in retrospect, was ideal for the post-2008 recession climate.

“We had a lot of friends who lived in that neighborhood who said there’s a dearth of places that offer good value,” Starr said of Fairfax Avenue, pointing to the closure in early 2007 of Eat A Pita as fueling this particular problem, and also helping to create the opportunity. At The Golden State, they cleaned up the interior of what had been the café/experimental art space Nova Express. Their menu also offers a selection of sandwiches, fries, organic hot dogs, several salads, infamously decadent beer floats, and a case full of Scoops ice cream from the cult favorite shop on Heliotrope Drive in East Hollywood. Their Fiscalini cheddar-topped Harris Ranch beef patty served with a pile of arugula on a brioche bun received instant accolades.

Neither trained chefs nor restaurateurs, they relied on Bernstein’s craft beer obsession for some degree of expertise and street cred, along with their joint understanding of their specific location on Fairfax. They also hired consulting chef Samir Mohajer to get the kitchen up and running, and built the room to be the kind of place where they themselves would want to spend time. A flat-screen TV would be tuned into ESPN, the soundtrack hip-hop-centric. They’ve figured out other nitty-gritty details along the way since opening in spring 2009. 

“We try to approach our projects with a sense of authenticity,” Bernstein, the more talkative and overtly cerebral of the two, explained. They think of every project as defining “a lack of X,” Bernstein noted, and don’t claim to be reinventing classic food genres. So far, this method has worked, and it’s also in alignment with the current preference for artisanal food trends that prioritize depth over breadth. “If we show a lot of care and attention to the product and the execution, then, hopefully, people are responsive to that,” Bernstein said.  

So, last year, instead of expanding The Golden State, which they had explored doing, they redirected their efforts to address another untapped local niche: They recruited Texas-raised, Compton-based pit-master Kevin Bludso to bring his lauded barbecue north to La Brea and Melrose avenues, with former food blogger/writer and self-trained cook Noah Galuten overseeing the kitchen and formidable smokers. Spartan bench seating fills the former deluxe Tar Pit interior, and the many wall-mounted TVs make Bludso’s ideal for barbecue and sports lovers. Instead of, say, Dr. Dre and the Beastie Boys, the speakers play a steady stream of John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and other classic bluesmen.  

And now, after four years of batting around yet another concept, the team has launched Cofax a few doors up from The Golden State, between Oakwood and Rosewood avenues. “On that block, it made a lot of sense,” Starr said. Golden State employees had heard from customers who balked at the prospect of walking just a few blocks north to Commissary or south to the Original Farmers Market that a nearby coffee shop could be viable. It’s a pretty simple operation: Cofax’s La Marzocco espresso machine pulls Stumptown Coffee Roasters’ beans from Portland, Ore., and they also sell other beverages and a few noshes to go with the coffee. 

Like other traditionally Jewish areas such as New York’s Lower East Side, Paris’ Le Marais district or London’s East End, Fairfax’s lack of polish resonates with a new population. Home to the perennially popular Canter’s Deli, the stretch around Beverly Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue is known these days far and wide to (mostly) dudes who shop at and adopt skateboarding and street-wear shops as their clubhouses. 

Replacing the Chasidic families that once dominated the strip, young men of all ethnicities now line the street for limited-edition skateboard, sneaker and T-shirt releases at stores such as Supreme, Crooks & Castles and The Hundreds. Eager shoppers park themselves overnight to get their hands on these coveted (and expensive) street-wear items. Still standing in the mix are the Schwartz and Diamond bakeries, for example, and the Western Kosher grocery store, which Bernstein said allows that part of Fairfax “to appeal to both the local and to the visitor.” Animal restaurant across the street also remains one of the city’s hottest dining destinations. 

Cofax occupies what was once a Jewish food business catering to a largely Orthodox clientele. Now, instead, “kids who are spending $60 on a T-shirt” are the core customers at Cofax, and to some extent, The Golden State. “So you have a very discerning group. I bet that these guys on the block just love the best,” Bernstein said.

So how do they relate to their base vis-à-vis their own L.A. roots? (Bernstein’s mother graduated from Fairfax High.)

“I think there is that resentment. Change is tough,” Starr said. But he sticks to a straightforward mission. “In our mind, we’re trying to make that neighborhood as good as possible and offer the people who live there great options.” Neither one, however, lives in the neighborhood; Bernstein lives in Koreatown, and Starr in Santa Monica.

They also believe there’s still room for everyone on the street, from the art galleries to the skate shops to the kosher food purveyors, and this issue hinges largely on individual consumer purchasing power.  

“Street-wear brands aren’t forcing Judaica shops out. Exercise your indignance by purchasing something instead. It’s not a conspiracy. Instead, it’s just dollars and cents,” Bernstein said. “Businesses don’t thrive on the fact that you’re thrilled they’re there. They thrive on participation. 

“I guess my message is: If you’re Jewish, and if you want Fairfax to retain that character, go buy Judaica on Fairfax Avenue.”

Then an aha! moment strikes. “If someone camps out for a menorah for five days, that’s what I want to see.”

“You start seeing tents and sleeping bags lined up,” Starr added, continuing the thread. “I’m surprised Supreme hasn’t dropped a
limited-edition menorah for Chanukah.”