Kosher restaurant: Eat your heart out trying to find one

There is a Kentucky Fried Chicken exactly .57 miles from Rabbi Stuart Kelman’s Berkeley office. But, for the Conservative rabbi, it might as well be 100.57 miles away.

“I sure wish KFC would kasher their restaurant,” said the spiritual leader of Congregation Netivot Shalom with a hearty laugh.

“I wish, in a way, that I could live in Jerusalem and have my choice of a dozen restaurants — hundreds of kosher restaurants,” including kosher KFCs. ” I would agree with all of my colleagues, Orthodox and Conservative, who hope — really, wish — there would be some more kosher restaurants in the area.”

While in other metropolitan areas, a nostalgia-inducing stuffed cabbage or hot corned beef sandwich the size of a Buick is often within stumbling distance, here in the Bay Area, the number of truly kosher, full-service sit-down restaurants can be counted on one hand.

And, while some have tried and failed, there is currently not one New York-style kosher deli in the Bay Area — much to the chagrin of famished East Coast transplants.

Why are there so few kosher havens? When asked, local rabbis and restaurateurs all invoke the golden rule of economics: supply and demand. Quite simply, they contend, the Bay Area’s demand for kosher restaurants is consistent with its meager supply.

“There’s just not that much of a demand,” affirmed Yuval Mizrahi, proprietor of the Sabra Grill in downtown San Francisco, whose restaurant specializes in Israeli-style meat and vegetable dishes.

A number of kosher Bay Area Jews as well as visitors will patronize the far more numerous vegetarian restaurants or will order vegetarian fare in a mainstream restaurant. However, those who observe the strictest level of kashrut will not.

Mizrahi characterizes much of San Francisco’s strictly kosher population as elderly folks who “go once a week to the butcher, buy a piece of lamb, cook it and stay at home and eat it.”

Of his customers, “80 percent come from out of town. They come from all over the world — Australia, South Africa, London,” said Mizrahi, who, like the vast majority of Bay Area kosher proprietors, hails from Israel. “That’s why I opened in Chinatown, a touristy area.”

That doesn’t make the Bay Area’s slim pickings any easier to swallow for the strictly kosher.

“Eating out is not part of our experience. You cook at home,” said Rabbi Yosef Levin, spiritual leader of the Chabad of the Greater South Bay in Palo Alto. “When we used to take the kids down to L.A., the first place we’d go is to a kosher restaurant. It’s a big experience to be able to go to a place, sit down and eat.”

Moving from New York, Rabbi Judah Dardik went from having four kosher restaurants on every corner to four kosher eateries in all of Oakland — with only one of them a full-service restaurant.

“In New York, there are not only different styles — Indian, Italian, all kosher — but multiple restaurants. You can decide which Mexican place or Chinese place you like best,” said Dardik, spiritual leader of Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation and the overseer at Holy Land Kosher Restaurant, both in Oakland. “Competition among them certainly helps keep the restaurants on their toes.”

While he’s been “reasonably impressed” with Oakland’s albeit limited kosher cuisine, Dardik adds that he’s never been a big restaurant guy. “My wife is a great cook,” he says.

Still, sometimes “I have a yen for Chinese food, which my wife doesn’t make. I’d love to see a little more in the way of ethnic food or pizza around here.”

However, the kosher diner — or those with a frum relative heading into town — is not without options.

Along with Sabra, San Francisco features This Is It Grill and Restaurant on Geary Street, near the theaters, and the Shangri-La Vegetarian Restaurant in the Sunset District.

In Oakland, Holy Land, like most kosher restaurants in the area, serves mainly Mediterranean fare with a selection of Eastern European dishes.

In addition, all area kosher eateries have a selection of vegetarian dishes.

In Palo Alto, Meekk’s — which once operated on the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center’s outdoor patio — was forced, for a time, into solely cooking for take-out and catering. The vegetarian eatery, which serves exotic dishes in styles ranging from Indian to Asian, is now located at 3750 Fabian Way, near the future site of the Palo Alto JCC.

Additionally, a number of kosher markets, bakeries, butchers and bagel shops offer customers the chance to sit in the window, nosh and drink a cup of coffee.

Favorite kosher hangouts include Oakland Kosher and Grand Bakery in the East Bay, Izzy’s Brooklyn Bagels in Palo Alto and Tel Aviv Strictly Kosher Market and Israel Kosher Meat, Poultry and Deli in The City.

This list may be so short because running a profitable restaurant of any sort — in the Bay Area, no less — is not an easy task.

“In San Francisco, rents are extremely high. Two kosher restaurants that were in Chinatown, King David and the Lotus Garden, were forced to close because of rents,” said Rabbi Jacob Traub. As the head of the city’s Orthodox Rabbinical Council, he oversees Shangri-La, the Bay Area’s lone kosher Chinese restaurant.

“The restaurant business is a very precarious business, and no one knows that better than in San Francisco, where restaurants open and close constantly. People are very fickle in terms of dining, but there is a special disappointment whenever you see a kosher eatery fall by the wayside.”

Rabbi Mark Bloom of Oakland’s Conservative Temple Beth Abraham has held pulpits from the Eastern Seaboard to eastern Australia to the East Bay, and he has witnessed the rise and fall of many a kosher restaurant along the way.

Despite his hopes, he isn’t sure the East Bay can support any more kosher eateries — though he believes a good kosher deli could make it in any city because, even among non-Jews, the term “kosher deli” conjures up images of delicious food — “as well as huge portions.”

In addition to the inherent slings and arrows every restaurateur must face, kosher restaurants must make additional commitments to meet the standards of kosher overseers — and pay them. Kosher meat and dairy products are also much more expensive than non-kosher alternatives.

Eddy Berenfus, co-owner of Meekk’s, said that in order to keep his kitchen up to his kosher overseer’s standards, he and his staff were often cleaning up until 2:30 a.m. Rabbi Maklouf Benchlouch, spiritual leader of San Francisco’s Congregation Anshey Sfard and a kashrut expert, said kosher foods often cost three times more in the Bay Area than on the East Coast. In a restaurant setting, those costs are passed on to the diner — who may grumble a bit.

Rabbi Levy Zirkind, the Fresno-based rabbinic administrator of the Vaad Hakashrus kosher overseeing organization, admits that his business has an image problem.

“People think we’re too heavy-handed, which we’re not. Unfortunately, a lot of people in the Bay Area think rabbis [who oversee kashrut] are like a mafia,” he said. “They think we have to control everything. We’re not trying to make people’s lives miserable. We’re trying to deal with halachah — that’s our standard. A lot of people are not educated about halachic standards and feel we are overbearing on them.”

Israel Rind, owner of Izzy’s Brooklyn Bagels in Palo Alto, agrees that his supervisors are not overbearing. With only an estimated 5 to 10 percent of his customers frequenting the bagel shop because of its kosher standing, Rind said his overseers know it’s in their mutual interest to work symbiotically.

“I look at them like the health department. Whatever they want, go for it,” said the Haifa-born Rind, whose store is overseen by Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman of the Orthodox Congregation Emek Beracha in Palo Alto.

“They’re not interested in giving me a hard time. They have to be strict because the customers are relying on them to be strict. And if your neighbor came into your house every second day, you’d keep your house a little cleaner, if you’re a decent person. There are a lot of zhlubs out there who don’t care about anything. They think they’re beautiful. But not me, I know somebody is always looking.”

Zirkind declined to specify how much his organization charged to oversee restaurants, remarking, “A guy’s got to make a living, and he’s not driving a Rolls Royce as a mashgiach,” a kosher overseer.

Berenfus said the Vaad had done a “special mitzvah” for him, agreeing to oversee his vegetarian facility for $100 a month, which he said was around one-third its usual rate. After operating two nights a week for several months, Meekk’s is now open five days a week.

Shangri-La’s owner, William Sang, said he pays $2,000 a year to be supervised by the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of San Francisco.

In the entire Bay Area, Sabra Grill is the only restaurant where a mashgiach is always on the premises. Mizrahi declined to discuss how much this sets him back, but Benchlouch said a trained mashgiach should earn at least $10 an hour.

Local overseers said they work hard for the money. Every ingredient in every dish Shangri-La prepares must be cleared through Traub, who keeps track of which brands of vinegar, tofu and soy sauce have the Orthodox Union’s seal of approval and which don’t. He also drops by periodically for “spot checks.” Approached by the restaurant in 1999, Traub said it took about a month to kasher Shangri-La’s kitchen and equipment, a task made easier because the restaurant was already vegetarian.

At non-vegetarian restaurants, things get more complicated. Sabra’s mashgachim are the only ones with keys to the meat locker, and must also pick through vegetables and rice for rot or infestation as well as inspect eggs for blood spots.

While the Bay Area is certainly no center for kosher cuisine, it does feature more kosher eateries than San Diego (two) or St. Louis (one) — and, Bloom is quick to point out, is much more kosher-friendly than his previous home in Cranston, R.I.

And, Welton recalls, it used to house the largest kosher chain in the world, Noah’s Bagels. While the Berkeley-born franchise once operated 110 kosher outlets, founder Noah Alper sold the business in 1996. Last summer, the chain ceased kashrut practices at the state’s final three kosher Noah’s, which were in San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley.

However, that doesn’t rule out the possibility of a kosher renaissance — especially since Alper has been bandying about the idea of starting a kosher restaurant in the East Bay.

“Given the fact that we have every other kind of restaurant here and we have world-class cities with world-class restaurants, it’s kind of a shame there aren’t more kosher restaurants,” said Welton. “But I think it’s a matter of time.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is a former J. staff writer.