By Jim Smith
Old Venice traditions die hard. In this case, Cafe Benice, which was slated to close on New Year’s Eve. A crowd of us descended on it for one last bite of our favorite meal. When we arrived we learned that closing day had been extended to the following Wednesday, thanks to the landlord, Jose Bunge.
Heelan (Benice) was all smiles at seeing so many people who cared about the place. Also bearing up well were the staff, including Avery, Jina, Andrew, Josh, David, Keith, Leslie and Lattie.
Cafe Benice opened in 1985 at Pacific and Horizon, under an existing sign, “House of Teriyaki, Donut,” which became the de facto name of the restaurant, and was an immediate hit.
The Lafayette Cafe had just closed after years of serving Venetians with cheap, but good, food. The cook, Manuel, got hired by Heelan, and began whipping up some of our favorite dishes from the old Lafayette. Some of them were still on the menu at Cafe Benice 25 years later, including Huevos Rancheros and Veggie Rancheros.
Is this the end of an era? Without Benice it will be hard to find a cheap breakfast place near the beach (although her prices have steadily risen along with the rent). The two cafes, Benice and Lafayette, represent nearly 50 years of morning meals for Venetians.
Going to breakfast was a social event for a lot of us in Venice when it and we were poor. It was the place to meet other Venetians. There were no hot bars or nightclubs in Venice, only alky bars for the confirmed, and older, drinkers. Most of the restaurants were small and crowded. You had to converse with your neighbors at the counter or the next booth. There were no TVs on the walls, no laptops to hide behind, just the occasional Beachhead which engendered more conversation.
At one time – the 60s through the 80s – there were many choices for breakfast on and around Ocean Front Walk. There was Alex’s cafe with 50 cent breakfasts; Ammoon’s, which also served falafels; Cheese and Olive, now C&O’s; Cleopatra; the Meatless Messhall; Suzanne’s Kitchen, and of course, Juergens.
Juergen Roscher, and his family, which included Mama, brother Gene, and the beautiful sister, Crystal, had a following that rivaled the Lafayette. In the late sixties, he started a hole-in-the-wall cafe across from the paddle tennis courts and under an old sign that said, “Da Driftwood,” which quickly became what we called the restaurant, as in, “Hey, let’s walk down to Da Driftwood.”
With an almost constant line out the door waiting to eat, Juergen knew it was time to move. The new place at 1611 Pacific – now occupied by Santinos – even had a dining room. A sign spilled over from the health food store next door, that read: NuPars. And Nu-Pars it was called. For a time, Juergen opened a more upscale (but not much) dinner restaurant in Hamburger Square, at Washington and Speedway. But the action was always at Nu-Pars. And still there was a line out the door.
Finally, the work got to Juergen and the rest of the family. It wasn’t easy feeding hundreds of hungry Venetians day in and day out. The Roschers called it quits in the early 80s. It was another sad day when we lost the best potatoes in the world. Does anyone know what happened to Juergen, Crystal and the rest of the family? Did they go back to their native Germany? Are they living nearby? The Beachhead wants to know.
It was 17 years ago that the H.O.T. moved to its current location at 1715 Pacific. The shabby building that once housed the Saucy Dog and, later, the Pelican’s Catch, was beautified with paint, art and repairs. Outdoor seating was added in the front, while the patio in the rear was mostly enclosed with tables seating around 50 people. Long tables in the restaurant proper seated more diners.
Full disclosure: My pal JD and I created H.O.T.’s first typeset menu for Heelan. I wish I had a copy of it. I remember the prices were stunning for their reasonableness.
As a vegetarian, I’m not qualified to give a culinary review of all the dishes at Cafe Benice. I do know that even for a vegetarian or a vegan, it’s hard to decide what to order. There are so many options, including omelets, potatoes, burgers, curry dishes, etc. My mouth is watering as I write this.
It’s no mystery why restaurants that only open for breakfast are disappearing from the beach vicinity.
Even in 1985, the Lafayette faced a tripling of its rent.
We’re living in hard times for many, who are unable to go out to eat. At the same time, rents keep rising.
Today, upscale restaurants litter the area from the beach to Abbot Kinney Blvd.
The search for breakfast-only places has had to move farther east around Lincoln Blvd., an area where we can find Maxwell’s, Cafe Buna, Cafe 50s (which also serves dinner). The Firehouse at Main and Rose has a breakfast-only room, but it’s attached to a bar, which probably pays the rent.
Let’s hope Cafe Benice rises from the dead, or a new Venice Hang-out for breakfast appears. In this long-term depression, we need it as much as ever.
If you have a nominee for best breakfast in Venice, please send us a letter.