Shallom and Jilla Berkman had traveled to Laguna Beach before, but one afternoon in 2010 changed everything.
The couple were stuck in a traffic jam on Coast Highway when Jilla looked over and saw the Cottage Restaurant, housed in one of the city’s iconic historic buildings.
“Jilla said, ‘That’s the spot,’” Shallom Berkman recalled Tuesday at Urth Caffe, the family-owned coffeehouse chain poised to open Sept. 21 at 308 N. Coast Hwy. “I said, ‘Are you crazy? It doesn’t say for lease or sale. It’s been there forever.’” Berkman said his wife responded by telling him not to be so closed-minded and to contact the landowner to check on the building’s availability.
He did, and though the property wasn’t on the market at the time, owner John Mazza eventually sold the land. The Cottage shuttered in December 2012 after more than 48 years of serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, leaving the Berkmans, who opened their fifth Urth Caffe that year, an opportunity to expand into Laguna with what would be their sixth site, their first in Orange County.
They bought the building and will soon serve food tailored to Laguna, including a variety of pancakes including green tea and gluten-free, white corn versions.
Urth Caffe opened in 1994 in West Hollywood. Subsequent restaurants opened in Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, downtown Los Angeles and Pasadena.
On Tuesday, the corner of Coast Highway and Aster Street was humming again as employees met for a training session, the scent of brewed coffee wafting. Shallom Berkman greeted workers with handshakes.
The Berkmans agreed to renovate the single-story building with guidance from historical consultant Jan Ostashay, adhering to characteristics of the original Japanese-Swiss Craftsman-style architecture. The structure was built in 1917 and at one time was the house of pioneering real estate developer Joe Skidmore.
In 1938, Howard and Le Claire Planalp made the house into a restaurant called the Laguna Vista Cafe. It closed during World War II but housed the Planalps until 1957. The building would become the Cottage Restaurant in 1964.
Redwood shingles adorn outside walls, while inside, a new hickory wood floor and turquoise marble countertops have been installed. A wood hutch with stained-glass windows will greet customers as they enter through the front door. Shallom Berkman credited his wife for her design ideas.
Customers will be able to sit inside or outside on the original outdoor patio after ordering. Servers will deliver the food, made primarily with locally grown, organic produce.
The couple discovered some of the building’s defining features during renovation, including concrete stairs from 1917. They unearthed the steps after clearing dirt to make way for a front entry patio made from French limestone tiles.
After removing stucco along an inside wall, crews discovered an outline of a door, Berkman said. Wanting to provide customers a seating option with an ocean view, they decided to place a marble-topped bar with high chairs in the alcove.
“We never follow the same design at any Urth,” Berkman said.
The same goes for the menu. Berkman hired Andrew Raab, a Washington, D.C., native who worked in some of that city’s restaurants, as on-site executive chef and recruited Davide Giova to be in charge of pastries and breads. Giova worked at the acclaimed Santa Monica Italian restaurant Valentino.
Every item at Urth is made from scratch, including 11 kinds of bread and a cornflake-crusted French toast made with brioche. Urth will be open for lunch and dinner as well as breakfast, offering salads and sandwiches and a bevy of specialty coffee and tea drinks. The Berkmans have traveled outside the U.S. to source coffee beans and tea leaves.
Nearby business owners seem excited about the upcoming opening.
“Everyone is raving about it,” said Sean Nasr, owner of Laguna Flooring Co., which sits across Coast Highway from Urth.
Nasr is a breakfast fan and said he will visit Urth when it opens.
“It’s convenient for us,” Nasr said. “Now we can [walk] to pick up food and not have to drive.”
Urth is holding a free grand opening ceremony for the public with food and drinks from noon to 7 p.m. Sept. 20, the day before the cafe officially opens.
“Hopefully this lasts for generations to come,” he said.
For more information, visit urthcaffe.com