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Vows to Reopen a Spot Where Dining, Thinking Can Mix : Cafe Owner Shuts His Doors but Stays Hopeful

April 11, 1985|KENNETH J. FANUCCHI | Times Staff Writer

Gunter Hiller is not one to give up easily.

He is still convinced that a 1950s-style coffee house can make it on the Westside, although his first attempt to start one has gone under.

For the past 18 months, Hiller, a 56-year-old survivor of the Holocaust, a philosophy professor and a cheesecake-maker extraordinaire, has owned and operated Gunter's restaurant at 1009 W. Washington Blvd., Venice.

But he closed up shop last week, after putting on one last event: An auction--with entertainment, cheesecake and coffee--to sell the furniture. Because the restaurant also was his residence, he and his new wife, Rachel, have moved to a van where they are contemplating the future.

Hiller said he was a victim of the high cost of doing business on the Westside, with its trendy, high-priced, high-volume restaurants.

Gunter's featured food at modest prices--the most popular entree, beans, rice, salsa, avocado and cream cheese cost $4--and a forum for the arts and serious political discussion.

He plans to open another restaurant, but not in Venice.

"Let's face it," he said in an interview, "Venice is irretrievably lost to the trendy. The costs for a small businessman are too high. My rent has gone up from $1,350 a month to $2,200.

"To meet expenses, I had to devote all my time to buying food, cooking, serving and cleaning. I never had the time to devote to the salon," which featured social and artistic events, interviews, debates, discussions and social satire.

But Hiller refuses to give up on his idea for a restaurant/salon.

"People are encouraging me to locate on the old Santa Monica Mall and I will be looking into the possibility. Right now, I need a break, maybe a couple of weeks."

One of the supporters of the proposed move to the mall is Santa Monica Councilman Dennis Zane, an enthusiastic habitue of Gunter's.

Zane said that "there ought to be a place" for a restaurant where people with more on their minds than simply eating a meal can hang out.

"Restaurants catering to locals no longer exist," Zane said. "The Brandywine Cafe, O'Mahony's, The Banjo Cafe, even Moby's Dock are out of business. Those were places where many of us used to meet each other on a casual basis."

He suggested, and Hiller agrees, that such an establishment has to be located in a place like the mall where passers-by can be drawn in. And "locals have to be encouraged to spend money there, too," Zane said.

"The real tragedy of Gunter's closing is that the food was really top-notch, good every time I was there" Zane said. "And, of course, his cheesecake is out this world."

Hiller starting making cheesecake for a living in the mid-1970s when he decided to abandon his job as a philosophy professor after earning a bachelor's and master's in philosophy from San Francisco State College, now San Francisco State University. He taught in New Mexico and Nevada.

Hiller is the only child of a Jewish tanner and his wife who lived in Berlin. He said his parents were killed in separate concentration camps in Poland during World War II. Hiller escaped from detention in Holland, he said, and later emigrated to Cincinnati, where his uncle lived.

After going to night school, he drifted to San Francisco, enrolled in college there and majored in philosophy "to keep alive the big human questions. Because of my background and what happened to my family, I wanted to find out why such things could take place."

Unfortunately, he said, the American tendency is to turn the page of history, rather than try to understand it. "The trend here is to go back to business as usual," Hiller said. "I wanted to make my life relevant to the questions raised so dramatically by Hitler."

Hiller went back to Europe to see if he would feel more comfortable there. Still restless, he returned to the United States, became active in the anti-war movement during the Vietnam War and roamed around Marin County.

He left the country again to visit India, Nepal and Thailand, where he flirted with the idea of becoming a Buddhist monk, before deciding to come back to the United States for good in 1974.

"I realized that the kind of discussion I wanted to create was going to happen here, not in Russia or any other country," Hiller said.

He dropped out of teaching, learned how to make cheesecake after tasting a "bad one" in Tuscon and moved to Venice, where he built up a business that catered to 20 restaurants on the Westside.

But his dream was to open a coffeehouse where the "big questions" could be debated and discussed by intelligent people. With $35,000 in savings and loans from friends, he opened Gunter's in October, 1983.

But he didn't have enough money to organize the social and political aspects of the coffeehouse.

"In Venice," he said, "I do not think you can open a restaurant for less than $100,000. That would give you time to develop a menu and the program necessary to support what I had in mind. I wanted a place with some soul, where people, instead of coming in once, could drop in several times during the day, a kind of gathering place."

Hiller tried to provide an atmosphere where people dedicated to changing what he said were "the mad, militaristic, soulless ways of the world" could exchange ideas and develop an effective political alternative.

He divided the restaurant into two settings, one exclusively for dining, the other more of a salon, where people could eat, but also listen to lectures, watch movies and see various forms of entertainment. Artists were encouraged to display their work on the walls.

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