Bob’s paternal grandfather immigrated to the United States from Russia in 1910. He made a living selling apples on the streets of Philadelphia before moving to LA to successfully open an ice cream and chocolate shop. Bob’s father, Eddie, circuitously followed suit. By marrying Lois (Bob’s mother), Eddie also got involved in her family’s slaughterhouse business. According to Bob, after working there for a short time, his dad “realized quickly that working with the end user was a better place to be—less gory!”
And so Eddie left the slaughterhouse to open a series of very successful hamburger stands. Bob recalls the reasons for his father’s success: “During the Second World War… military people would come to LA on leave and they wouldn’t have anywhere to stay. They’d be walking the streets all night long, and he’d sell them hamburgers and hot dogs. He did very well—well enough to buy a restaurant when the war was over.” Thus with a lot of ingenuity and a bit of luck, the Redwood House was born in 1947.
It was a happy accident that Eddie Spivak’s first restaurant, the Redwood House, was located next door to the then-fledgling Los Angeles Times. Eddie quickly turned this happenstance into a lot of press for the restaurant by regularly filling the bellies of all the Times’ reporters. It seems the elder Spivak never missed an opportunity for creative entrepreneurship.
Eddie quickly learned the ins and outs of restaurant ownership. In those days, butchers boned out pork loins for bacon and for chops, but had nothing to do with the ribs. If you bought enough salable meat from them, they would give you the ribs for free. As soon as he realized that he could acquire rib meat for next to nothing, Eddie opened his second venture: a barbecue rib restaurant called Smokey Joe’s.
It was in a Smokey Joe’s—of which there were eventually several— that a young Bob Spivak cut his teeth in the restaurant industry.
As a child, he folded napkins and peeled carrots for years until, at the age of 10, he asked his dad if he could be the dishwasher. “I felt that was a very adult job and an important job,” Bob says. “He [Eddie] was afraid to have me working around all the equipment at such a young age, though, so he actually drew a line on the wall in the kitchen and said when I grew to that height I could become the dishwasher.” Bob eventually reached that line, and from there went on to work every possible position in his father’s restaurants.
While Bob thrived as an enterprising Fedco employee for seven years, he wasn’t completely satisfied. He left the company and drifted through three different jobs in as many years, trying to find a good fit. He started a moderately successful soup and salad restaurant with another Fedco manager, but admits, “It really wasn’t setting the world on fire.” Eventually, he parted ways with the project.
Meanwhile, his homelife wasn’t much happier; by 1982, Bob found himself back at the proverbial square one: divorced at 39 years old, living on his father’s couch, trying to figure out his next step. Fortunately, along with an interest in his father’s industry, Bob inherited his father’s intuition. Couple that with natural business acumen, and it wasn’t long before Bob was dreaming up restaurant ventures of his own.
And he dreamed big: His first idea was to open a high-end steakhouse in Beverly Hills. “This was a time of great pretense in the restaurant scene in LA,” he remembers. “There were restaurants at the time that made an art form about how small and pretty the portions could be and how large the prices…
You ate the way the chef prepared it or you didn’t eat it at all.” But Bob wanted to approach fine dining from a different angle. He wanted a style of service whose customer service philosophy was always, “The answer is yes—now what was the question?”
So he took this concept, and a bit of Spivak family luck, to a lunch meeting with two potential investors in 1982. By the end of the meal, these three men shook hands on a deal to open the now infamous Grill On The Alley. They agreed on the philosophy, the financing, even the potential (and eventual) location in Beverly Hills. As he walked through the dining room on his way out of the meeting, he was stopped by a blond woman calling across the dining room, “Hey, aren’t you Bobby Spivak?”
That woman’s name was Leslie, and as it turned out, she was a junior high classmate of his. Still seemingly amazed by the coincidence, Bob smiles and tells me, “On the day that I made the deal of my life, I also met the love of my life.” Leslie would become an integral part of his life and work: She helped Bob and Chef John Sola tweak and perfect classic recipes such as chicken pot pie for the future Grill menu from their tiny first apartment in Brentwood. Leslie became Bob’s muse and his wife, and she remains so to this day.
Shortly after the day he met Leslie, he also found the perfect spot for his restaurant. The only problem was that the current entrance to the building was on Wilshire Boulevard, a busy and unattractive entrance for the type of ambiance he was trying to cultivate. Not one to be deterred, Bob endeavored to change the entrance to the alleyway behind the building.
The problem was that city ordinance prohibits placing a business entrance in a public alleyway. Bob, in a stroke of genius, noting that the property had one inch of frontage on Dayton Way, did the following: He made up the address 9560 Dayton Way, painted it on a mailbox which he hung in the alley, and mailed himself a letter. He then used that letter to prove that the alley, one inch of which technically is a legal street, was in fact the viable business address.
The rest, as they say, is history..
The Grill’s food and level of service attracted Hollywood’s power players; its alley attitude and lack of pretention attracted everyone else. Following this success, Bob and his partners went on to open many more restaurants over the years, culminating in his most recent: Public School 310 in Culver City.
The restaurant may be new, but the concept is the same: “Public school is for the people,” Spivak states plainly. “After all these years, our philosophy is still the same: ‘The answer is yes—now what was the question?’” Unless the question is, “Are your kids involved in the restaurant industry?” Then the answer from Bob Spivak, a man from a historically culinary family who has built a veritable empire on his knowledge and business savvy, is resoundingly, “No.”
As he wells up with tears, he will explain why is he so proud to have his family’s legacy end with him: “No, no. My son has a Wharton MBA. Probably the proudest moment of my life was attending his graduation.” His father opted out of the restaurant industry, and his children chose not to enter it, but Bob Spivak continues to play an unwavering role in the narrative of Los Angeles’ food scene. In a city of change, this man has remained constant and successful, and will likely continue to be for years to come.