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A Taste of Cuba and More to Come

The duo behind a hot Westwood eatery ventures into Hollywood, starting with a Havana-inspired club

August 19, 2002|MARIA ELENA FERNANDEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It wasn't meant to happen this fast. Not one, not two, but three new hot spots in Hollywood opening back to back, all owned by the same two South African-born entrepreneurs who just three years ago were getting on each other's nerves--best friends sharing a one-bedroom apartment; one sleeping on the couch, promising to move out but never managing to do so; both collecting quarters to grab a burger at McDonald's, all the while bickering like a married couple.

But that was life before Tengu.

Nearly three years after Alan Nathan and Anton Posniak opened the popular Westwood sushi and Asian fusion restaurant named after the Japanese god of mischief, the partners have arrived in Hollywood, where they always wanted to be. On April 28, they opened one of the most exclusive doors in town: the split-level, elegant, Havana-inspired lounge Nacional, named after the Hotel Nacional in Cuba. Next month, they plan to strike again with a double punch: an intimate Cuban fusion restaurant called Paladar, to be Nacional's next-door companion on Wilcox Avenue; and the Ivar, a much-anticipated 14,000-square-foot, glitzy dance hall, 2 1/2 blocks away.

To say that Nathan, 32, and Posniak, 30, are busy is an understatement, but the two say they have no choice. All around them, Tinseltown is exploding. In the last four years, nightclubs, bars, restaurants and shops have been popping up all over Hollywood Boulevard. East of La Brea Avenue, where just two years ago it was hard to feel safe among the street life, thrill-seekers now check in and out of bars and clubs, while families and tourists go to movies and dine at fine restaurants.

They are part of a new wave of successful Hollywood nightclub and restaurant owners who have helped transform the district, people such as Loyal Pennings, owner of Las Palmas and the upcoming Corridor on Cahuenga Boulevard; Paul Devitt, of the Beauty Bar and Star Shoes; Richard Heyman of the Hollywood and Vine Diner, Bice Mercado and the upcoming Ultra Lounge; Ivan Kane of Deep and Forty Deuce; and Chris Breed of the Pig 'n Whistle, Sunset Room and the upcoming White Lotus.

"Hollywood has become a destination," says Nathan. "People know they can come here now and park their car and they have lots of choices of things to do. At the end of the day, when you look at the quality of people going out in Hollywood, you know this revitalization is going to be a success. This is something I anticipated and dreamed about, but I also think we've gotten very lucky."

If it is true that people make their own luck, Nathan and Posniak's success should not come as a surprise, said Westwood real estate and business consultant Steve Sann, who met them before Tengu opened. A neighborhood favorite and funky spot where A-list celebrities, such as Cindy Crawford and Nicole Kidman, can dine discreetly, Tengu has thrived in an obscure location that seemed to be cursed for years, Sann said. Posniak, who lived and studied in Japan for two years, created the restaurant's soothing Zen aesthetic and then spiced it up with fruit-infused sakes, creative sushi rolls, haikus on the menu, and a DJ. "What they've done in Westwood is nothing short of extraordinary," Sann said. "They took a challenging location, at the end of Westwood Village, and created a very hip and beautiful interior and New York vibe. It's taken sushi to a whole new level in Westwood, bringing their eastside Hollywood crowd into Westwood Village. That was unprecedented."

Several miles northeast of Tengu, Hollywood business leaders are depending on Nathan and Posniak to hit a trifecta with their new ventures. Kerry Morrison, Hollywood Entertainment District executive director, says the two are a boon to the community. "They are two high-energy guys who seem to have a passion for bringing something special to Hollywood," Morrison said. "They are bringing something unique and of quality. Their ideas are not flash-in-the-pan concepts. Their businesses will endure."

The duo may be on the roster of Hollywood's newest nightclub owners, but they've been eyeing the scene for some time. Best friends since they met as teens in La Jolla, where their families had immigrated, Nathan and Posniak started dreaming of owning a Hollywood bar while working at the landmark Garden of Eden on La Brea Avenue, where Nathan's gregariousness turned him into a sought-after party promoter and Posniak's intuitive business sense--he had owned a bar in San Diego called the Pour House--led to a job as the bar manager.

Their first attempt to open a Hollywood bar was in 1997 when they tried to take over a bar on Cherokee for two years but gave up because the landlord would offer them only a month-to-month lease, Posniak said.

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