The Spielbergs (Yes, Those Spielbergs) Reopen The Milky Way, Mom's Legendary Kosher Restaurant
For 40 years, the Milky Way endured as one of the most high-profile kosher restaurants in Los Angeles. Located in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, in the heart of the "kosher corridor," it wasn't just a place to eat. It was the restaurant that introduced Mexican, Cajun and Italian flavors to many of its diners. During its four-decade run, the Milky Way became a touchstone for L.A.'s Orthodox Jewish community. But when Leah Spielberg Adler opened the place, she had modest culinary goals.
In 1977, L.A. had only a few kosher restaurants.
"When my mom and my stepfather, Bernie Adler, decided to venture into the restaurant business, their initial purpose was to provide a dining experience to L.A.'s kosher community, who had never tried internationally inspired food," says Nancy Spielberg, one of Adler's four children.
Although they kept kosher at home, running a restaurant involves another level of scrutiny.
The Adlers were fond of the Chabad community, whose kashrut laws are stricter than those of many other Orthodox Jewish sects, so they decided to serve a kosher dairy menu. Since milk and meat cannot be served together under kosher rules (sorry, no cheeseburgers or pastrami reubens), the restaurant would be mostly vegetarian. More than that, kosher dairy restaurants must be rigorous in ensuring that all of their food stays separate from meat products. Under Cholov Yisroel supervision, one of the many kashering authorities, all dairy products must be made with rabbinic oversight from the moment the cow is milked.
The Adlers also wanted to broaden the palates of their fellow Jews.
"Bernie had introduced many of the local rabbis to Mexican and Chinese cuisine," Spielberg says. "Imagine a time when Jews had not yet tasted Chinese food, let alone eaten it on Christmas every year. Our mom wanted to watch the expressions of the community when they took that first bite of a chimichanga, a sip of the fish chowder, or the first burn of the Cajun snapper."
Spielberg remembers one time when when her parents' Orthodox friends came over for a party and tried some of these foods for the first time.
"I'll never forget the Chassidic dancing that broke out in our little living room on Wilshire, when the margaritas flowed with the tacos and guacamole," she says.
Adler worked long hours, from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m., six days a week, to make the restaurant a success.
"If we wanted to be with her, we would hang out in the restaurant, sit at her corner table to share our joys and our woes, hear her sage yet unusual advice and just be in her presence," Spielberg says. "The Milky Way meant the world to our mom."
In 2017, Adler passed away at the age of 97.
Her four children -- Nancy, Anne, Sue and Steven (a filmmaker with a few minor hits under his belt) -- decided to close the restaurant while they mourned her loss.
They wanted time to think about the future of the family business. In the four decades since the Milky Way had opened, L.A.'s dining scene had changed. Pico-Robertson was brimming with kosher restaurants. Palates had expanded and guacamole was hardly a novelty. Leah Adler's children knew that if they revived the restaurant, they had to walk a fine line -- bringing the food into the 21st century while holding onto their mother's vision.
This week, the Milky Way finally reopened with a renovated dining room, a new kitchen and a menu that reflects Adler's vibrant spirit.
Reimagined by chef Phil Kastel, the menu includes favorites like cheese blintzes and lasagna as well as new items such as a Santa Fe chopped salad and pan crisped salmon with garlic lemon butter.
"It's got her whimsical nature, her love of family, her quirkiness, her demand for the absolute best, both in terms of food and décor, written all over it," Spielberg says.
Kastel began working with the Spielbergs in April 2018. "I had the current kitchen crew make me every item that was on the menu," he says. "I also spoke with the family and asked them, 'What are the signature items? What are the family favorites?'"
The 2019 menu preserves the popular potato pancakes, eggplant parmesan, guacamole, chimichangas, fish and chips, fish chowder and tuna melt. It also features an Impossible cheeseburger and Cajun snapper with pineapple salsa. Kastel wanted to introduce more seasonal vegetables and fish, so the restaurant has committed to changing the menu four times a year.
To regulars, that's all well and good, but they have one crucial question: Is the Milky Way still kosher? The answer is a resounding yes.
"It is certified kosher, which is huge for people who follow certified kosher rules," Kastel says. He has more than a decade of experience with the Hillstone Restaurant Group, best known for operating the Houston's chain, but this is his first time cooking kosher food.
"It took a lot of research," he says. "What I learned is that the majority of the food in your fridge is kosher. Heinz Ketchup. Best Foods Mayonnaise." Most people probably don't notice or understand the kosher symbols, known as hechshers, on many common foodstuffs.
Kosher food is divided into three categories: meat, dairy and pareve. To keep kosher, milk and meat products must be kept separate. They can't be prepared or consumed together but pareve food items can be consumed with either. Fish can also be eaten with dairy meals.
Kastel discovered that there are many kinds of Cholov Yisroel-certified cheese. "I noticed that some had more milk fat than the others," he says. "So when I was sourcing Swiss cheese for the tuna melt, there was one that was better than the others."
Kastel did, however, stick with the kosher vanilla ice cream the Milky Way has always served with its apple pie à la mode. He hopes the care he has taken in sourcing ingredients would make Leah Adler proud.
A kosher restaurant must also have an onsite mashgiach, the person who ensures that the place maintains its kosher standards. "He inspects every product that enters the building, from canned goods to fish to produce. He also cleans all of my lettuce and all of my produce. He washes it and makes sure everything is 100%. Same thing of the fish," Kastel says.
Even the pots, pans, silverware and china had to go through a kosherizing process, before Kastel and his staff could use them.
These items were sent to a mikvah, a ritual bath used for purification. For Orthodox Jews, the cleansing evokes holiness and connects the dining table with the altar of their temple. The back of the restaurant has a sink that customers can use for ritual hand washing and blessings before the meal.
These additional requirements, on top of L.A.'s labyrinthine regulations for opening a restaurant, aren't inexpensive or easy. That's why the food at most kosher restaurants often costs a bit more than the food at similar, non-kosher restaurants.
MAKING MOM PROUD
Although the Milky Way caters to its Jewish clientele, the Spielberg family hopes the restaurant will intrigue Angelenos who want to try kosher fare, and maybe Leah Adler's hospitality will win them over.
"Home is where your mom is," says Nancy Spielberg. "The Milky Way was our home in many ways."
Many customers who initially came for the food returned to see Adler. To the right of the entrance, customers can watch videos of Adler through the years. Framed photos of the Spielberg family decorate the restaurant. The hallway is lined with posters celebrating Steven's cinematic achievements, from Schindler's List and E.T., to Jaws and The Color Purple.
The Spielberg children hope that memories of their mother will continue to nourish the community.
"Our mom had a larger-than-life spirit, and the Milky Way was her incredible spirit personified," Spielberg says. "There is no doubt that our mom exists in every corner of the space. I almost feel a 'mommy hug' every time I walk into the restaurant now."