Serving a stick-to-your-ribs style of cooking, the owner of The Grill has grown his restaurant empire by offering an alternative to trendy L.A. cuisine

When Bob Spivak first opened The Grill in 1984, discerning diners were feasting on such chi-chi fare as terrine of chanterelles with cucumber relish at La Chaumiere or saut & #233;ed duck liver with walnut oil at Michael's.

By contrast, The Grill offered New York steak, filet mignon with fried onions, double-cut lamb chops and veal chop T-bones with potatoes O'Brien, hashed brown potatoes, shoestring potatoes, fried onions, saut & #233;ed mushrooms and steamed spinach.

Foodies didn't know what the heck to make of it. The Grill wasn't just a nice place to eat; it was the flagship for the return to food you could feel in your stomach. Damn the cholesterol; full forks ahead!

The Grill and its lower-priced sibling, The Daily Grill is the creation of Spivak, an affable fellow with a taste for stylish ties and a long family history in the restaurants of Los Angeles. Indeed, Spivak was born into one of the city's great restaurant families. He didn't grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth, but with a flatware spoon filled with meatloaf and mashed potatoes.

What Bob Spivak created at The Grill and The Daily Grill is a tribute to what his father, Eddie Spivak, was doing four decades ago at the Redwood House and Smokey Joe's.

An early education

"I grew up five blocks from the second Smokey Joe's in Sherman Oaks," said Spivak. "That's my earliest restaurant memory. When I'd get out of school, I'd walk over there, fold napkins and sort beans. I remember I must have been 9 years old, and my father would make his barbecue beans using white navy beans from hundred-pound sacks. And it was my job to sort through every bean and find the three or four bean-sized rocks that would have been missed by the mechanical sorters. Three or four rocks meant three or four broken teeth. I remember sorting beans all summer long. That was where my restaurant career began."

Eddie Spivak was one of those guys who made good, honest food for the rest of us and achieved a good deal of populist fame in the process. During World War II, he ran a handful of 24-hour hamburger stands along Broadway, when L.A.'s downtown was a glittering land filled with great theaters and large stores. Soon after the war, he bought a coffee shop on the corner of First Street and Broadway, and a few years later expanded into the space next door. He called it the Redwood House.

The food served today at The Grill was born at the Redwood House, which Spivak describes as "an upgraded coffee shop. It was good old traditional American food, and a real drinking place. My father was the impresario there, deciding whether you should go into the Gay '90s Lounge Bar, or into the coffee shop or back into the big room that was like a cafeteria. And If you were really someone, you could go to my father's office on the second floor, which was the only place downtown that you could get a drink on Election Day.

"All the big politicians downtown would show up in my father's office on Election Day," he said. "Even people who never drank would go there to have a drink, because it was something you weren't supposed to do. Every Election Day Bill Parker, the police chief, would be there having a drink. It was that kind of a place."

Unfortunately, he said, "the Redwood was not as successful as it appeared." In 1970, Eddie Spivak had a serious heart attack the morning the IRS was going to put a padlock on the Redwood House for non-payment of back taxes.

"I called them up to explain what happened," said Spivak. "They called the hospital to verify it, and gave me 48 hours to come up with $5,000, which I did. I spent the next two years running the Redwood."

In 1972, Bob Spivak closed the restaurant. "I told my father I was getting out. He said, 'If you're getting out, I'm getting out.' He sold it for less than what he owed, and that was that." For the first time in his life, Bob Spivak was out of the restaurant business. He was 30 years old, and had never known any other life.

Perfect timing

For the next five years, he ran the food departments at the Fedco stores. It was at Fedco that Spivak learned his first real lessons about running a high-volume business, about management, about product. In 1976, he opened a Beverly Hills soup and salad restaurant called Soup 'n Such, a precursor of the super successful Souplantation and Soup Exchange restaurants. "It was ahead of its time, and it wasn't executed right. If we'd been smart enough to do a salad bar, The Grill would probably have never happened. But then, if I'd had the opportunity to open The Grill back then, I'd probably have blown that too. There's literally no substitute for experience."

At his 20th high school reunion, Spivak was reunited with a pair of old friends (Mike Weinstock of Morse Security Group, and Dick Shapiro of Budget Rent-a-Car), who offered to back him in his next project. Said Spivak, "I was getting divorced at the time, from a woman who hated the restaurant business. The time was right, the people were right, and that's how we ended up opening The Grill in 1984."

It was a time when people were eating tiny portions of tortured food, when the prevailing joke was about going out for a hamburger after spending $100 a person for dinner.

No one was doing steaks and chops, except for old joints like Musso & Frank Grill, Taylor's, the Pacific Dining Car, the Original Pantry and so forth culinary dinosaurs regarded with horror by victims of fashion.

"And that was the concept," said Spivak. "We said, 'What are we going to do?' We agreed that if we could bring a real New York-style steakhouse to the heart of Beverly Hills, that would be a winner. So we made a pilgrimage to (restaurants in) New York and San Francisco. It's so simple there are no adjectives on the menus. You don't see 'creamy' mashed potatoes, or 'tender,' 'juicy' steaks. We felt the time had come for a piece of meat, a piece of fish, a stalk of broccoli, a heaping plate of french fries. That was the concept.

"Beverly Hills wasn't our first choice," said Spivak, "because it's never been a great restaurant town. But everything just fell into place for us. It turned out we were a couple of blocks from William Morris (Agency), and the Morris people started to come over every day. We became known as the 'William Morris commissary.' To this day, at one in the afternoon, 90 percent of the restaurant is entertainment industry people. That creates an aura about the place. And I'd love to tell you that was a great, brilliant plan we had. But it wasn't. We just got lucky."

A little more than four years after The Grill opened, its first offspring, The Daily Grill, opened on San Vicente Boulevard in Brentwood the first of what became a mini-chain of six. "We decided, who better to do a knockoff than us? The Grill is one of a kind; it's a restaurateur's restaurant. But The Daily Grill is about the business of restaurants; it's the same thing, only different."

And fortuitously, Bob's father Eddie lived to see his son's success. "My father was alive and healthy for the first two and a half years of The Grill," said Bob Spivak. "He was so proud of it, of me. He was like a conquering hero when he came in. He had a stroke two and a half years after The Grill opened, and it was really sad. But he knew, he knew..."

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.