The wait for the highly anticipated The Milky Way is over: the beloved restaurant, once run under the grace and singular charm of Leah Spielberg Adler, is set to re-open on February 18. The opening comes almost exactly two years after Ms. Adler, who had initially opened the restaurant with her husband Bernie in 1977, passed away at 97.
Once in a while, a restaurant comes along that is the personification of a dynamic human. The Milky Way, a kosher dairy restaurant that became a staple of the Pico Robertson neighborhood almost immediately upon first opening, is just such a restaurant, a reflection of the force of nature that was Ms. Adler. Ms. Adler, whom friends and family alike referred to as “LeeLee,” was a concert pianist and an artist, and also a proud mom of four talented children – Steven, Nancy, Anne and Sue Spielberg, a fact that was celebrated throughout the restaurant in the form of a memorabilia-filled room that became as much a salon as the perfect place to drop by for a plate of blintzes. Following her passing in February of 2017, The Milky Way went dark for a period to respect her memory. Now, after much consideration, the Spielberg family has thankfully decided to honor their Mom and reimagine The Milky Way, ushering in a new era for a cherished restaurant with a new look and an updated, streamlined menu.
“Our mom had a gypsy spirit that was larger than life itself, with an unstoppable energy and a fiery confidence that was reflected in the halls of The Milky Way,” says the Spielberg family in a joint statement. “LeeLee opened the restaurant with the vision of offering fine kosher food to the Jewish community in Los Angeles at a time when such a thing didn’t exist. Though her passing left a deep void in our hearts, we hope the new Milky Way will not only honor her memory, but also give back to the community she loved so deeply.”
The Spielberg family commissioned the talented Executive Chef and Restaurant Consultant Phil Kastel of PK&J Hospitality Group (The Grill on the Alley, Public School, Hillstone Restaurant Group) as the Creative Chef at The Milky Way, tasking him with the challenge of not only thoughtfully and skillfully redesigning the space but also updating the menu while paying homage to the legacy – and tastes – of Ms. Adler. The 2,600-square foot restaurant, which seats 50 in the main dining room, features warm wood, welcoming gray and cool blue tones, creating a bright and inviting environment with hardwood floors throughout. Six horseshoe booths line the dining room wall overlooking the action, redone with shades of blue – a hat tip to the fact that Ms. Adler loved the color, and wore blue jeans not only before jeans were acceptable but before they were even manufactured for women. The parallel wall features banquet style seating, adjustable to accommodate parties large and small. The bar – previously unfunctional – has been completely redone and can now serve an additional 13 guests, an ideal spot to enjoy a glass of wine or beer.
The little touches that honored the Spielberg children still remain, now placed delicately and strategically throughout the restaurant. The hallways are lined with framed film posters – including Big, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Above and Beyond – as well as family photos, lending a nostalgic touch that honors the family’s achievements and also satiates the curiosity of film buffs. Farther into the restaurant, a cozy corner pays homage to Ms. Adler herself – a comfortable bench is set up alongside a piano, where diners can enjoy a glass of wine and watch a tribute video. A tabletop with some of Ms. Adler’s favorite books, and an area rug, converted from the restaurant’s old red flowered carpet – a design near and dear to the family – further decorate the space.
Additional elements of newness include a fully revamped service model under the leadership of General Manager Stephanie Wilson (The Grill on the Alley), which substantially streamlines the dining experience and makes The Milky Way an ideal spot for quick power lunches and leisurely meals alike. To complement the quicker service, The Milky Way now also offers valet parking during lunch and dinner services, a welcome change in a neighborhood where park spots are notoriously difficult to find.
“The Milky Way may be a kosher dairy restaurant, but it is also a New American Kosher restaurant,” says Kastel. “We wanted to create an inclusive and welcoming place for everyone, regardless of their faith or adherence to a specific dietary restriction. What will resonate with diners most is just how comforting the food here is – all the dishes on the new menu honor LeeLee and her unique tastes and are updated but true to her legacy at the same time.”
Chef Kastel has put a modern spin on the kosher dairy menu, peppering the menu with entirely new items and updating many of Ms. Adler’s original family recipes with a new twist to create a menu that has a global appeal, both for the international Jewish community and the general public alike. All dishes are made using the freshest, locally sourced ingredients, and diners can expect the menu to shift quarterly for seasonality, including a selection of seasonal fish. The new menu will now feature The Impossible CheeseburgerTM with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, American cheese and thousand island on a sesame seed bun, served with fries; the Famous Fish Chowder with halibut, Yukon potatoes, onions, celery and leeks, available daily; as well as the Cajun Pacific Snapper, with blackening spices and pineapple salsa, served alongside assorted seasonal vegetables. Some of Ms. Adler’s original recipes have also been elevated with a modern spin. Signature dishes include Leah’s Cheese Blintzes served with strawberry preserves and sour cream; Salmon Puffs – a long-time, much loved signature dish, featuring crispy pocket, cream cheese, scallions and herbs – and the Potato Latkes with house-made apple compote and sour cream. Additional dishes not to be missed include the Eggplant Parmesan with marinara sauce, mozzarella, parmesan and basil; the Ahi Tuna Burger with red bell peppers, ginger, scallions, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and sriracha aioli, served on a sesame seed bun; and the Trout Amandine, with a panko crust, toasted almonds and tartar sauce paired with seasonal vegetables. Dessert features Leah’s Classic Cheesecake – another original – as well as the new Apple Dream Pie, with a filling featuring crushed floral pink peppercorn and inspired in part by a dream Nancy Spielberg had of her mother. The restaurant will also serve kosher wine by the glass or by the bottle, as well as a selection of bottled beer.
While there is much to celebrate with the new Milky Way, what hasn’t changed is the attitude of the restaurant. Leah Adler is still in the room – her life and spirit preserved in the photos, posters and tchotchkes that carefully speak to her legacy – supported by food and wine that is still kosher, delicious and accessible. This is, after all, a neighborhood kosher restaurant servicing the community with class and style.
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