Kurt Niklas

Kurt Niklas, once the maitre d' of Romanoff's, operated the Bistro and the Bistro Garden in Beverly Hills and later opened the Bistro Garden at Coldwater in Studio City. (Los Angeles Times)

Kurt Niklas, whose Beverly Hills restaurants, the Bistro and the Bistro Garden, catered for decades to a high-powered crowd thick with denizens of the film industry and high society, has died. He was 83.

Niklas died Tuesday at Cedars- Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles of complications from a stroke, his family said.

He immigrated to the United States from Germany in his early 20s around 1950 and eventually became maitre d' of Romanoff's, an earlier era's celebrity haunt. When the Beverly Hills restaurant closed in 1962, director Billy Wilder and other famous customers suggested that Niklas open his own place.

The venture was bankrolled by 60 people who mainly contributed $3,000 apiece, a list of Hollywood and business luminaries that included Jack Benny, Frank Sinatra, Tony Curtis, Otto Preminger and Alfred Bloomingdale.

Wilder, who also invested, advised Niklas against giving the restaurant a "fancy name." They agreed on "the Bistro," which opened in 1963 on North Cañon Drive.

The "unassuming little Beverly Hills restaurant" immediately began hosting "the Beautiful People of the world -- English princesses, Kennedys . . . Hollywood actors and producers . . . Washington political swingers . . . and California's Ronald and Nancy" Reagan, The Times reported in 1972.

It helped that those who lent Niklas the money were the same boldface names who essentially agreed to be a captive audience for lunch and dinner.

Although Niklas might joke that the restaurant's Continental fare didn't win fancy awards, a 1986 review by former Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl praised the "perfectly cooked" capellini, "impeccable" onion soup and "wonderful clams casino."

In 1979, Niklas opened the Bistro Garden nearby as an informal alternative to the luxurious Bistro. Although it served dinner, it was best known as a place where the ladies who lunch often included first ladies, such as Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush.

Jackie Collins was inspired by the Bistro Garden to write her 1983 novel "Hollywood Wives."

"There's a story at every table. It's almost like Le Cirque in New York: a place to see and be seen, to get dressed up before you go, to wave across the room at your friends when you arrive," Collins told The Times in 1990.

As Niklas nurtured what he called "the cult of celebrity" at his restaurants, he turned table seating into an exercise in social ranking.

"The seating thing is really tough because people call up and they say, 'When did I ever give you any trouble? When did I ever insist on sitting there?' " -- meaning of course, at a less desirable table, he said in The Times in 1972.

In his 2000 memoir "The Corner Table," Niklas recounted telling director Alfred Hitchcock, "The need to have the No. 1 table . . . can turn otherwise civil men and women into barbarians."

In 1990, the Niklas family opened a third restaurant, in Studio City, called the Bistro Garden at Coldwater, which has been described as resembling "a grand 18th century country home." Times reviewer Max Jacobson wrote in 1991 that it may have been the most beautiful restaurant he had ever dined in.

The Studio City location is the only remaining Niklas family restaurant.

By 1994, the Bistro had closed, mainly as the result of landlord and labor disputes.

The demise of the Bistro Garden in 1996 occurred after rumors of an anti-Semitic insult to a patron caused business to dramatically fall off. Niklas contended that a remark made by his maitre d' son, Christopher, had been misconstrued. The family made amends with the offended party, but she died days later, before she could call off the boycott.

The idea that he could be seen as anti-Semitic deeply troubled Niklas, who spent a year in a Nazi forced labor camp during World War II.

He was born July 14, 1926, in Munich, Germany, to Theresa Niklas and Siegfried Levi, a Jewish traveling salesman.

His parentage presented "two immediate problems," Niklas wrote in his memoir.

"I was a half-Jew in what would soon be Nazi Germany, and my father was married to someone other than my mother."

Raised mainly by relatives, he spent time in an orphanage with his sister, Helen. He never knew his father, who died at the hands of the Gestapo.

At 13, Niklas was forced by Nazi policy to leave school and apprenticed at Berlin's grand Esplanade Hotel. It was frequented by Adolf Hitler, whom he occasionally waited on before being sent to the labor camp, he recalled in his book.

Sponsored by a Los Angeles car dealer he had met years before, Niklas moved to California and quickly turned to the restaurant business. Soon he was establishing a reputation for service -- and honing his approach to table seating.

"You always like to have one or two celebrities in a crowd," Niklas told The Times in 1990. "Someone you'd like to rub elbows with. And the people who tell you they don't care or don't notice are just kidding themselves."

Niklas, who was divorced, is survived by his four children, Jasmine, Christopher, Carolyn and Stephanie; and five grandchildren.

A public celebration of Niklas' life is being planned.

valerie.nelson@latimes.com