July 18, 2019

Revamped ‘Milky Way’ Honors Spielberg Matriarch

The Milky Way

When you enter the newly revamped Milky Way restaurant at 9108 W. Pico Blvd., the aroma immediately reminds you of home. And that’s exactly how the late Leah (“Lee Lee”) Spielberg Adler would have wanted her family restaurant to feel.

The Milky Way, an iconic Pico Robertson kosher dairy eatery, opened its doors 40 years ago but closed following Leah’s death in 2017 when she was 97. Now, its doors are open again. 

The Spielberg family — Nancy, Sue, Anne and Steven (yes, the filmmaker) — reimagined the space by working with restaurant consultant and creative chef Phil Kastel and the restaurant’s general manager Stephanie Wilson. 

Guests can still enjoy Jewish classics like cheese blintzes and potato latkes, but the menu also has more elevated options such as halibut with teriyaki, fettuccini, and eggplant Parmesan. 

“Phil brought an energy and a spirit to the project unlike any other, and I knew we had to go with him,” said Nancy Spielberg. “More than anything, he got what our mom meant, not just to us siblings but to the Orthodox and kosher community in Pico Robertson. He was very sensitive to the kashrut laws and also kept vegan and gluten-free dishes in mind, which opens the restaurant up to those diners who might not themselves observe a kosher diet.”

One of the most exciting new menu items is the Impossible Cheeseburger, a plant-based burger that tastes and looks like a meat patty. 

“Kosher food is kind of misunderstood,” Kastel said. “Leah loved Thai food and sushi and Mexican food, and that’s what she put in the Milky Way restaurant. So for me, it was a natural fit. I love creating with bold flavors. What I found out, which surprises a lot of people, is that most items in your pantry are kosher.”

Though the menu is revamped, every item still pays tribute to Leah in some way, including the Apple Dream Pie.

A slice of Apple Dream Pie, a twist on Leah’s classic apple pie; Photos courtesy of The Milky Way

“Nancy had a dream that she was here at the restaurant eating with her mom and [Leah] had apple pie a la mode, and she had requested two different kinds of pepper on top of her apple pie.”

Kastel, inspired by what he thought was a silly conversation, created the Apple Dream Pie, which incorporates a floral essence from pink peppercorns in the pie’s caramel sauce.

Kastel said another exciting element about the new Milky Way is that its menu and ingredients will change about every 90 days depending on what’s in season. Beginning in mid-April, the restaurant will also be entering new territory with a Sunday brunch. 

“After Passover, we will be launching a Champagne brunch menu, so that’s kind of exciting,” Kastel said.  “There’s about 12 or 14 items on [the menu]. I don’t see a ton of kosher brunch spots up and down the street, so we’re kind of really excited about that.”

“I feel our mom’s presence and just know she’d be thrilled with the changes. She’d be dancing and twirling among the tables.”
— Sue Spielberg

Along with changes to the menu, the revamp also pays close attention to family details, and Leah’s essence is scattered throughout, as though she never left. 

“Before the refresh, there was a beautiful red carpet in the restaurant that was really special to Lee Lee and the family, and we still have that in the lounge,” Wilson said. “There’s also a four-minute video of Lee Lee throughout the years, which is so amazing to see her in the restaurant, and it shows how much pride she had in the Milky Way. I feel like what we’ve created here will carry out that same pride.”

Patrons can also enjoy other portals into Leah’s life through the family photos on the walls, her son’s film posters in the hallways, and a newly added wine bar where guests can enjoy their favorite libation as Leah did. (Each day, Leah took a break when she would ring a bell and sit down with a glass of wine.)

Another nuance of the restaurant, Wilson said, are the denim aprons employees wear and the denim-covered booths, which honor Leah’s usual daily work attire of Levi’s jeans, pearls and red lipstick.

The interior of the dining hall; Photos courtesy of the Milky Way.

“I’ve worked in restaurants for over 20 years,” Wilson said. “I started working in a family restaurant, and I’m so happy to be back working for a family. I take so much pride in what I do. For me, I feel like I’m at home. It’s my second home.  That’s how we take care of our friends at home and that’s how we take care of our guests here.”

Sue Spielberg said she and her siblings are confident their mom would like the changes they have made in her memory. 

“I feel our mom’s presence and just know she’d be thrilled with the changes,” Sue said. “She’d be dancing and twirling among the tables. I’m excited for my little granddaughters — my mom’s great-grandkids, one of whom is also named after her — to enjoy the food and see the family photos and learn about our incredible mom.”