Evan Kleiman closing Angeli Caffe on Jan. 13

"I was open for years when I probably should have closed," says Angeli Caffe's Evan Kleiman, left, pictured with chef Kathy Ternay in 2009. "It was my personal mission to get my employees past the worst of the recession."
(Bret Hartman / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times

A deluge of supportive customers has breathed a few extra days of life into Angeli Caffe, the Hollywood trattoria that radio personality and chef-restaurateur Evan Kleiman opened in 1984. The restaurant was expected to shut its doors for good on Sunday, but because of a swell of well-wishers, Kleiman said she would close Jan. 13.

“Because of the huge demand and an attempt to avoid overbooking we will be open another week — Friday the 13th is our last night now (perfect, right?),” she wrote in an email on Tuesday.

Kleiman said she had tried to sell Angeli but couldn’t find a buyer to continue running it under the same name and she was bleeding money by staying open, hit by the recession and the changing restaurant landscape around Melrose Avenue.

“I was open for years when I probably should have closed,” Kleiman said just after she’d told her staff about the closure last week. “It was my personal mission to get my employees past the worst of the recession, and I absorbed a lot of losses personally in order to do that and just can’t do it anymore.”

A galvanizing force in the Los Angeles food world, Kleiman calls herself “a culinary multi-tasker”: the host of KCRW-FM’s “Good Food,” a chef who has owned several restaurants, a caterer, public speaker, instructor and cookbook author. She has helped raise money for down-and-out farmers and displaced East L.A. food vendors, among others. Most recently she launched her Easy as Pie app, an offshoot of her popular Pie-a-Day contest, which has become an annual foodie event.

Some of Kleiman’s employees at Angeli have been working with her since the restaurant opened in 1984, when it was 24 seats in a former screen shop, a restaurant inspired by food she’d eaten in the trattorias of Italy and remarkable for its modern, angular architecture. Her food has stayed the course: Ligurian fish soup, croquettes of roasted eggplant, lasagna with creamy pesto, pizzas and fritti misti.

At the time Angeli opened, “she was cooking what was quite possibly the most authentic Italian food in America,” said Colman Andrews, author of “The Country Cooking of Italy” and editorial director of “That is, it was the food that tasted the most like what I had been used to eating in Italy — simple, almost to the point of minimalism; pure in inspiration, not gussied up for American audiences.

“I think Evan really was a pioneer in stripping away the elaborations and Americanisms that had become popular even in the best places.”

Hers was a completely different approach, said Victoria Granof, Angeli’s first pastry chef and now a food stylist in New York, who wrote “Sweet Sicily: The Story of an Island and Her Pastries.” “It was rustic and soulful and very ahead of its time. Evan was doing then what only in the last 10 years has come into the culinary consciousness.... And it was exciting. We were among the first women chefs along with Mary Sue [Milliken] and Susan [Feniger] and Nancy [Silverton] and Lydia Shire.”

Feniger, who along with Milliken opened the onetime City Cafe in 1981 on Melrose, called the shuttering of Angeli “a rude awakening.”

“It’s in some ways such a fickle industry,” she said. “Everybody wants to try the new place, and there are so many places that are open that it’s hard to stay current and keep a loyal following.... But I was totally shocked. You think of Angeli as being one of those places being there forever.”

But Melrose Avenue between La Brea and Fairfax avenues changed around Angeli over nearly three decades, with restaurants sprouting on nearby Beverly Boulevard and West 3rd Street, both streets now more popular with locals. The $160-million Grove retail complex opened on Fairfax in 2002, which also drew potential customers away from Melrose. “Melrose today certainly isn’t what it was then,” said restaurateur Bill Chait, who opened the erstwhile Angel City Grill at Melrose and Gardner in 1986.

Kleiman has been through the dismantling of a restaurant before. At one point she had four restaurants: Besides Angeli Caffe, there was Trattoria Angeli in West Los Angeles, which opened in 1987 and closed in 1994; Angeli Mare in Marina del Rey, which opened in 1989 and closed in 1995; and the short-lived Angeli in the Rodeo Collection in Beverly Hills, which opened and closed in 1993.

Kleiman says Angeli will be open every day for dinner until Friday, except for Monday. “We really want everybody to come by and say hi and need people to come so that I can pay my last bills,” she said. On a recent evening it was packed with diners who had stopped by to say their goodbyes and get their last taste of Angeli.

Kleiman, who said she’s especially devastated on behalf of her staff, had been trying to sell the restaurant as a brand for a couple of years, but nobody came forward. “And you know, it’s a different thing buying the space and buying the brand. It has to be a pretty special person.”

Kleiman said she would continue to cater, with more information coming soon at her website, “I’m going to explore food products and try going down that road. It’s such a massive change that I don’t really know what it’s going to feel like.”

Meanwhile, fans will continue to hear her on “Good Food” every Saturday morning on KCRW. Feniger pointed out, “Evan will always be a relevant force in the food community, thank God.”