By Nicola Pittam
He’s the biggest director in the world and the mastermind such box office hits as ET, Jurassic Park, Jaws and Indiana Jones. But while Steven Spielberg makes movies that pull in hundreds of millions of dollars, his mum still runs the tiny restaurant she began 25 years ago.
Petite Leah Adler, who has just turned 82, could easily have retired years ago and been looked after by her famous son, who is reportedly worth more than $2 billion. But instead she chooses to work up to eight hours a day, seven days a week, greeting customers at her Los Angeles eatery The Milky Way.
The diner has proved such a success that even Spielberg has to put in his daily order for a Tuna Stuffer, which is pita bread stuffed with tuna salad, early to make sure he’s not left out!
Leah said: “Steven loves the food we serve here – whenever he is in town shooting a film I always have to send him over a tuna sandwich to the set. That’s his favorite dish off the menu and he always gets his order in early. But when he’s not shooting, he comes into the restaurant and then he order the cabbage rolls which he also loves. I’m so proud of him, I never dreamed he would be where he is today. I’m still toiling away here and he’s the most famous director in the world.”
“Seriously, I love doing this. I don’t think I could ever give it up – it keeps me young! I’ve just turned 82 but I feel 30 years younger and I know that running this place is what keeps me on my toes.”
Customers entering The Milky Way are immediately struck by the homeliness of the restaurant as Leah is on hand to meet and greet them. But soon their eyes turn the walls which are adorned with mementos of her famous son.
There are movie posters from most of his films, a clapperboard from Jaws and, of course, photos of Spielberg himself, including one with him and Leah at the Academy Awards when he won for Schindler’s List.
And on one counter there are even photos of Leah with Kirk Douglas and even Bill Clinton. Former concert pianist Leah proudly shows diners the pictures and says: “That’s my son, isn’t he wonderful? I don’t know where he got his creativity from! Well maybe he gets a little of it from me!”
“He was always making movies when he was a kid. I think he did his first one when he was eight. Of course then we never had any idea that he would go on to become where he is today. Then he would just spend all day filming the family and making up these wonderful little tales. He has a wonderful imagination and I love all his movies, they are so whimsical and extraordinary. But my favorite must be Schindler’s List. It is such a powerful film and close to all our hearts.”
With Spielberg on his way to success after paving the way for summer blockbusters with his hit movie Jaws in 1975, Leah decided it was time for her own: ‘Action.’
Leah, who has split from Spielberg’s dad and remarried Bernie Adler, decided she wanted to start her own business because she couldn’t find anywhere decent to eat. She wanted somewhere she could get fabulous home style food but without any meat included.
So after searching through Los Angeles and hitting a dead end she decided to open the Milky Way in 1979, the same year that Spielberg hit cinema screens with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Leah came up with the name Milky Way, not after one of her son’s fantasy sci-fi movies like Close Encounters or ET but because the menu is kosher and made up of dairy-based dishes.
Leah explained: “The reason I called the restaurant The Milky Way has nothing to do with Steven’s science fiction type movies like Close Encounters or ET! The reason is that we only serve dairy products – there is no meat on the menu at all. We have some fish like salmon or snapper but that’s it. However, there is a lot of cheese and egg based dishes as well as vegetarian dishes like eggplant parmesan and spinach crepes.”
Leah has three full time chefs that prepare the meals, which include seven appetizers, six entrees, five specials, five pizzas, five different sandwiches, six light dishes, salads, soups and five deserts.
The petite owner admits she is not allowed in her own kitchen to cook after being barred by the chefs. But does decide what dishes go on the menu which has hardly changed over the years.
She added: “”I have three chefs and they do all the cooking – I’m not allowed in the kitchen! Besides I have far more fun meeting and greeting people as they arrive for lunch of dinner. I love talking to everyone and getting to know them, no matter if they’re famous or just ordinary people.”
“We have people coming in who have been coming here for 20-odd years and often they want to chat as much as they want to eat! I do put the menu together but again I also have people who advise me – this is a business not just a place where I can hang out. I think the reason it has lasted so long is that I don’t put my favorite dishes on the menu or do the cooking!”
“I’m there’s lots of things that I and Steven like but no-one else would, so early on I realized I had to make the menu varied and not just thing I wanted to eat. Also the menu has not changed that much over the years, I’m a big believer in that once you find something you like, you should stick with it.”
“Occasionally I’ll update the menu and I listen to my customers about what they like but why change a winning formula? But even so I love all the dishes – my favorite is the dreamy cheesecake which is so light I could eat it day after day!”
Leah’s daughter and Spielberg’s sister Sue added: “Mum just loves running this place – we can’t tear her away from it. She doesn’t have to be in here every day but she really enjoys it and the customers all love her. She spends most of her time going from table to table chatting to everyone and making sure they’re having a good time.”
“If the customers are happy then so is she. No-one would ever guess that she is 82, the way she runs around here.”
And Leah says she has no plans to retire any time soon, adding: “I couldn’t ever imagine retiring, I love this too much. Besides what would Steven do without his daily sandwich to keep him going?”
Some examples of the dishes available on the Milky Way menu:
Freshest Norwegian Smoked Salmon with the fixins
Steamed Veggie Platter with a creamette dressing
Tangy Guacamole Dip with fresh tortilla chips
THE LIGHT FANTASTIC
Marinated Fish & Advocado: Tender fish filled with capers, Chinese peas, artichoke hearts and avocado in a tangy dressing
Spinach Seafood Fettuccine: Pasta sautéed in olive oil with smoked salmon, spinach and plum tomatoes
Oriental Stir Fry: Snowpeas and fresh veggies sauteed in a savoury Oriental dressing on a bed of rice or angel hair pasta
Salmon Roulades: Baked slices of fresh Norwegian salmon layered with cream cheese and spinach pate. Served with toasted pine nuts and sauce béarnaise.
Cabbage Rolls: A classic. Poached cabbage leaves filled with our secret blend of fresh vegetables, rice and walnut pate. Baked with sauerkraut in tomato and served with potato pancakes and sour cream
Eggplant Parmesan: Delicately sautéed eggplant smothered in a zesty marinara sauce and baked with layers of mozzarella. Accompanied by a fresh green salad and garlic bread.
MILKY WAY SPECIALTIES
Spinach Crepes: A tasty combination of cream spinach accented by friend onions and wrapped in two golden crepes. Topped with melted cheese and served with garlic.
Cajun Blackened Snapper: Red snapper rolled in lively Cajun spices and blackened in a cast iron skillet. Served with rice.
Cheese Blintzes: What would a dairy restaurant be without blintzes? Ours are yummy. Served with sour cream and strawberry preserve.
BETWEEN THE SLICES
Tuna Stuffer: Pita bread stuffed with tasty tuna salad, lettuce and tomatoes.
Seafood Tacos: Two corn tortillas filled with succulent blackened fish, shredded cabbage, lettuce and tomatoes. Topped with tangy salsa and sour cream.
Hot Mushroom Sandwich: Delicate mushroom pate topped with melted Swiss cheese, avocado and sliced tomato. Served on toast.
* Dreamy Cheesecake
* Fresh Fruit Stir Fry
* Luscious Carrot Cake
* Devilishly Rich Chocolate Mousse Pie
* Tangy Lemon Tart
Nicola Pittam is a British journalist who has worked for Splash News in Los Angeles for four years. She reports daily on the latest from Tinsel Town for the British newspapers