Umamicatessen, the multi-restaurant-in-one concept in downtown L.A., is fast becoming known for its ham platters from Pigg, pastrami sandwiches from Cure, gourmet burgers a la its namesake, and foie gras and jelly donuts. Think clever twists on classic dishes, all served in one open, airy, stylishly rustic dining room.
It's not a far cry from the restaurant that lived in that space from the 1940s through the 1970s: Berliner's, a bustling neighborhood restaurant that fueled the financial and garment industries with corned beef hash, chicken paprikash and three-martini lunches.
"It was always busy," recalls Alan Berliner, founder of celeb-focused Berliner Photography and Malibu resident. His father opened the restaurant "sometime before WWII," and Berliner himself closed it in 1977. "We served a lot of 'ready food' because people didn't have a lot of time for lunch back then. But they did drink at lunch. It was very Mad Men-ish."
Berliner's wasn't all glass, exposed ducts and reclaimed wood. There were two doors from the street: one led into the coffee shop, the other into the bar, and the dining room was located in the back. Berliner, who worked as a soda jerk at the counter in the 1950s and took over ownership of the restaurant in the 1960s, says it was "nondescript" but homey and friendly, with red booths and drop ceilings. At one point he acquired the former Horton Converse drug store just north of the restaurant and expanded.
The family, Chicago transplants of Hungarian and Romanian descent, served hearty dishes like stuffed peppers, pot roast and corned beef hash. Berliner remembers daily specials like goulash -- the menus were printed and delivered from the Lord Menu Company every day. There was always someone sipping a martini, bourbon or a draft beer at the bar, which was located pretty much where Umamicatessen's is today.
Berliner's son Alex, also a well-known photographer, was too young to work in the restaurant, but he remembers scavenging the booths for loose change with his siblings. That, and he liked to go to the bar for Shirley Temples: "The bartender's name was Jerry. I used to love to say, 'Jerry, can I have a cherry?'"
Around the 1970s, things started to change for Berliner's. The once great street that was full of life and energy -- you can see it in the black-and-white photo hanging at Umamicatessen -- started to decay. "The neighborhood had changed dramatically," says Berliner. "Broadway was very slowly dying, it wasn't supporting us anymore. So we sold the restaurant."
People like Umamicatessen owner Adam Fleischman are gambling that Broadway will become a hot spot once again. The restaurant, along with other new bars, restaurants and living spaces, is breathing new life into the block anchored by the fantastic Eastern building, in all its Art Deco grandeur, and the historic Orpheum Theatre. An Ace Hotel is slated to open nearby. "This is going to be the real epicenter of what downtown becomes," he says. "I think that speaks to the greatness of the street. It was once something so central, hopefully it will be that again."
What's most interesting: Fleischman didn't know the space was a restaurant way back when, but says he could feel its soul. "I think of all the spaces that we have, it's definitely my favorite. It just felt like it had good history to it."
"I hope we can be here for 30 or 40 years, too," he adds. "We're planning on it."
[Photos of Umamicatessen by Amy Tierney.]