Whether you’re grabbing sandwiches with your Advisory during the School day or enjoying some gelato with friends after classes get out, Larchmont Boulevard is a Marlborough hotspot. What began as a small carriage street in the 1920s has evolved into one of the trendiest strips of restaurants and shops in Los Angeles, drawing people from all over the city looking for a “neighborhood” experience.
To keep this village feeling intact, Larchmont has been trying to avoid large corporations and chains for years. In October of 2009, a west-side developer, Albert Mizrahi, came into town and began buying up properties. Mizrahi now owns over 20,000 square feet of space on Larchmont, including the popular restaurant, the Larchmont Bungalow, as well as Twirl Frozen Yogurt and clothing boutiques Library and Larchmont Hardwear.
According to Landis General Store owner Edie Frère, Mizrahi originally presented the Bungalow to the other Larchmont business owners as a take-out place that sold roasted coffee, fine kitchen appliances and furniture—not as a restaurant with tables and chairs.
In Oct. of 2009, the Bungalow opened with a license as a take-out café but began to operate as a sit-down restaurant. Later that month, the Department of Building and Safety revoked the Bungalow’s Certificate of Occupancy, meaning that technically the restaurant has been operating illegally in two ways: first, they don’t have the permit necessary to have a business in the building, and second, they do not have the license necessary to function as a sit-down restaurant.
Now, over two years later, even after City Councilman Tom LaBonge cited the Bungalow for operating without a Certificate of Occupancy, the restaurant is not only still open for business; it’s thriving. This blatant disregard for the law has caused other neighborhood businessmen and women to wonder why stronger legal action hasn’t been taken. To defend themselves against the criminal allegations, which include operating without a certificate of occupancy, failing to comply with orders and providing false information, the owners of the Bungalow are set to appear in court for a hearing on Apr. 27.
As the community begins to determine what Larchmont will look like in the 21st century, neighbors and business owners faced with the illegal but profitable example set by Mizrahi have begun to wonder: should we make way for lucrative but dramatic change on Larchmont or adhere to the existing restrictions? Which is more important to the village: money or nostalgia?
In November of 1992, Larchmont implemented a set of Qualified (Q) Conditions written by the Council of the City of Los Angeles to prevent the street from being overcrowded by large conglomerate businesses and to maintain the balance of retail shops and eateries. These Q Conditions put a put a cap on the number of restaurants that can occupy Larchmont.
“We weren’t trying to make another Grove or Third Street Mall,” said the current alternate to the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council Patty Lombard, mother of Emily Simon ’11. “We wanted these Q conditions.” However, a loophole in the Q conditions allows for an unlimited number of take-out businesses and coffee shops.
When the Larchmont Bungalow came into the space previously occupied by Cottage Antiques, owner Mizrahi and his leasing agent Jonathan Ahron originally planned to tear down the building but instead decided to renovate the existing property.
“The best way to help this neighborhood is to preserve,” Ahron said, explaining that he and Mizrahi took a more expensive route to do what was right for the village. “It costs more money to rehabilitate, to restore, to preserve something, than to knock it down and build new. You open up a can of worms [if you renovate a building in Hancock Park].”
At first, locals welcomed the Bungalow with open arms, excited about the prospect of having a new business on Larchmont. However, after seeing tables and chairs, and an overall restaurant quality to the Bungalow, people became worried.
“The Bungalow tried to pretend that it’s just take-out,” Lombard said, expressing a frustration echoed by many business owners on the street. However, Mizrahi and Ahron deny that they deliberately concealed their intentions to make the Bungalow a sit-down restaurant.
“We expressed that it was going to be [a restaurant] and then all of a sudden a certain part of the community got aware and involved and it became a political issue,” Mizrahi said.
From the beginning, the Bungalow openly operated as a restaurant, attracting attention from both locals and the City of Los Angeles. After investigating this new business, the City revoked the Bungalow’s Certificate of Occupancy.
“It’s so surprising that they can operate illegally,” Frère said. I always thought that you had to get your act together before you open your doors, and if you screwed it up, someone would come and say, ‘So sorry, let’s get you organized.’”
Neighborhood opponents of the Bungalow, such as the Larchmont LA Facebook page and Twitter feed, as well as the IloveLarchmontBlvd.com website provide an ample amount of information on the Bungalow controversy to keep Hancock Park citizens informed and up to date. Both sites have shed light on an issue that hasn’t been exposed to many residents beyond the immediate area; though the Larchmont Chronicle has covered the story, the LA Times has never acknowledged the Bungalow’s illegal status.
“If I didn’t live in the community and wasn’t on the board [of the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council], I would have just been excited that there was a new restaurant,” Hancock Park resident Auxiliary Services Manager Clinton Oie said. “I wish people would let go of the anger and just concentrate on following the rules.”
Larchmont Larder owner Katie Treviño, mother of Ivy ’16, had a draft of a lease on a store on Larchmont and was about to officially open a business in the building when Mizrahi swept in and bought the property himself. Treviño, who had spoken to Ahron about her business plans, later noticed a number of uncanny similarities between the Larder and the Bungalow.
“They weren’t very original and came in and took bits of other people’s businesses,” Treviño said. “Some of the backlash in the community was crazy. It almost became a Salem Witch Trial.”
Ahron and Mizrahi said they think they are being unfairly persecuted by the rest of the Larchmont business owners.
“They picked on us because we were the lone wolf,” Ahron said, referring to how the Bungalow’s violations of Q Conditions have received more attention than the violations of other businesses on Larchmont that have tables and chairs outside but are not legally recognized as restaurants, including Jamba Juice and Larchmont Village Spirits, Wine & Cheese.
Ahron and Mizrahi also argue that the success of the Bungalow benefits the Village economically as a whole, as the Bungalow employs 45 people in a time when jobs are getting cut everywhere.
“The truth of the matter is we’ve helped business on that end of the street,” Ahron said.
However, other Larchmont stores do not openly admit that their businesses have become more successful since the Bungalow has opened.
And yet other stories of Ahron and Mizrahi’s shifty dealings have been circulating in the Larchmont community, including tales of their threatening to deliberately put other stores out of business and raising the rent for the buildings they own, forcing out longtime residents and business owners.
The majority of other businesses owners on the street said they feel angry about being misled by Mizrahi and Ahron.
“I went to Marlborough. My mother went to Marlborough. My kids went to Marlborough,” Frère said. “I have an honor system in me.”
Since other Larchmont businesses did not expect the Bungalow to be a restaurant, there was not a great fear of competition. However, with more restaurants on the street than are permitted by the Q Conditions, businesses vying for customers have become more hostile.
“Competition is very healthy,” Mizrahi said. “But when you’re competing, you have to step up your game a little bit.”
Nearly all Larchmont business owners agree that the Bungalow should not be able to remain open without a Certificate of Occupancy and that Arhon and Mizrahi should reapply for new permits, this time following all Q Conditions.
“They need to go through the planning process, public and transparent, just like everyone else,” Lombard said.
But with a substantial daily lunch crowd and multiple Groupon promotions in the past year, the Bungalow’s success is undeniable, regardless of whether or not the restaurant receives business from unhappy locals.
“We’re trying to be as supportive as we can to the community,” Ahron said. “We’re trying to make people aware of what’s happening, and yes, we’re getting a lot of bad press. Maybe we’ll be accepted over time.”
The courts and the City have already determined the Bungalow to be acting illegally, but few expect anyone to take immediate action to shut down the restaurant. Although the Bungalow has another hearing set for Apr. 27, the appeals process could take years.
“It would scare the heck out of me to be in that position…I just can’t imagine it,” Frère said. “I’m told the food is good, but I obviously can’t eat there.”