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End of an Era at Le Cafe : Special musical acts are planned for the nightspot's final month. The owners recall special nights and face the upcoming closure with mixed feelings.

March 31, 1995|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Zan Stewart writes regularly about jazz for The Times.

SHERMAN OAKS — Since he was a teen-ager, Dale Jaffe fantasized about opening a restaurant. "I don't know why," he says. "It wasn't like there was a family business. The only thing could be that my mother was a great cook and gave me the ability to know really good food."

Jaffe turned fantasy into reality when, in 1979, he was the catalyst who got Le Cafe, the bistro-nightspot in the heart of this Valley neighborhood, off the ground. Jaffe had been working at Greenstreet's, a small gallery/cafe that shared space with Books, Etc. on the north side of Ventura Boulevard just west of Van Nuys Boulevard. And when that establishment's lease expired, the then-21-year-old part-time restaurant manager, part-time world traveler, talked his mother, stepfather and brother into starting Le Cafe.

And now, after 16 years of providing Southern Californians with high-quality food and world-class music, Le Cafe is closing. The room will shut its doors sometime in April, Dale Jaffe figures, and is slated to become an Italian restaurant. Final legal papers have yet to be signed, "but it's 99.9% done," says Jaffe.

Le Cafe is closing for the typical reason: It's not making enough money. But there's more to the story than that.

After many financially rewarding years, Le Cafe began to experience a downturn in the wake of the 1992 L. A. riots. West Valley defense-plant cutbacks worsened things for the restaurant, according to Paul Jaffe, Dale's brother, and the Northridge earthquake issued the final blow. Sherman Oaks was devastated, Paul recalls, and many left the area.

"We lost a lot of that neighborhood feel where people might walk over for breakfast or a late dinner," he says.

At the same time, the priorities of the owners were starting to change. Paul met his wife, Mara, while she was a waitress at the restaurant, and they now have two children: Kaitlin, 7, and Kevin, 5. "I needed more time for my family," Paul says. Dale, who had gone into music management, decided to pursue a career in film production and began attending the American Film Institute. Lois Boileau and Jay Hodes--the brothers' mother and stepfather--were beginning to look toward retirement. "This all culminated in us putting the restaurant up for sale," says Paul.

Originally, Le Cafe was simply a French bistro with a somewhat limited but very tasty menu. As time went on, and chefs came and went, the menu expanded and the place became a first-class restaurant. To add visual stimulation, the owners also instituted rotating art shows.

In 1980, another appealing aspect was added: The Room Upstairs, an intimate music room that became one of Southern California's top jazz clubs. Over the years, the 56-seat space hosted notables including guitarists Caymmi and Larry Carlton and singers Ruth Brown, Ernie Andrews and Boileau, a fine singer of standard and Brazilian fare. The Jaffes wanted Le Cafe to resemble a European cafe, serving both social and cultural functions. "We tried to foster that cultural feeling with the music, the art shows, the eclectic, interesting food," says Paul. "And we had late-night service: The kitchen stayed open until 1 a.m., which tied into The Room Upstairs."

If you were even a semi-regular at Le Cafe, there was a sense of being family once you walked through the door. Dale Jaffe planned this from the outset. "The great pleasure of a restaurant is (that) it's like your home, and people come there, and you serve them a great meal and have this magical time as a host," he says.

There were countless special nights at Le Cafe, like the time Sarah Vaughan showed up to hear Ruth Brown, and ended up doing a couple of songs. Or when Jonathan Winters would come to have dinner and end up holding court.

"He was a frequent customer, and often he would walk to another table and start joking around with those people," remembers Paul. "Before long, that table and the one next to it were involved. Five minutes later, it was a section of tables, then maybe half the room, as he did this off-the-top-of-his-head . . . comedy."

The last month of Le Cafe will be usual--solid fare offered nightly--and extraordinary, with special musical acts planned until the closure. Tonight and Saturday, saxophonist Brandon Fields brings in his partners in the band Anonymous, plus guests artists, under the name the Anonymous All-Stars. Fields, who has worked Le Cafe "dozens of times," says that he always looked forward to appearing there. "The room has a vibe," he says. "When people go there to hear music, that living-room intimacy makes you, the artist, really feel them."

Upcoming weekends will feature numerous artists who have worked Le Cafe over the years, with lineups to be named shortly.

Paul Jaffe speaks for his family when he says leaving Le Cafe inspires mixed feelings. "There's a lot of excitement in the future for me, but a lot of my memories are still here, fond memories of people that I have met, close friendships that I have fostered here. It's kind of that sadness, and the possibility of the future."

Where and When

What: Brandon Fields plays as part of the Anonymous All-Stars.

Location: The Room Upstairs at Le Cafe, 14633 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks.

Hours: 9 and 11 p.m. tonight and Saturday.

Price: $10 cover, two-drink minimum.

Call: (818) 986-2662.

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