As a waiter steams my cappuccino at WeHo Bistro, a robust force fills the airy atmosphere behind me. The staff doesn’t tense, but you sense their attention. He doesn’t dominate the place, but you can tell he’s in charge. It’s Jeff Douek, the owner. Tall and towheaded, he shakes my hand and tells me to find the best seat in the house.
I choose the patio of the casual French dining spot. I’m facing La Cienega at the corner of Holloway, yet feel cozy amid the brick red and rustic decor. I save Jeff the seat that allows full view of his restaurant. Smiling, the 50-something Jeff Douek joins me. He wears a light-colored plaid shirt, pulling off “professional yet relaxed.” He’s comfortable with his restaurant in his periphery, glancing around now and then to observe the scene. He orders a cappuccino like myself, but with vanilla.
Life is sweet for Jeff Douek. He’s successfully completed renovations for his restaurant that lasted six months. Business has increased 30% since last year. Customers are happy. His staff is happy. Even the geraniums that align the patio are happy. Striking and dewy, the bright pink petals might look like an oil painting from across the street. Their flourishing foliage privatizes us from passersby and subdues the highly trafficked corner.
“Imagine!” Jeff says gleefully when I mention them. “We do nothing except water them and once every three months we put fertilizer.” The geraniums were gifted to the restaurant when they opened. “And I think,” he says, pausing. “It sounds silly — but I think it comes from the magic that’s underneath us.”
I’m more inclined to believe the magic comes from Los Feliz. That’s where Jeff Douek awakes every morning to walk his dogs and dance to deep house music. “Dance with a yoga twist,” he tells me of his half-hour to 45-minute ritual every day. Should he not feel like dancing that day, if he makes himself dance he feels better within seconds. “Everything that follows is better when you start your day dancing,” he says. “Life just is better.”
What you can give to yourself, you can give to others, they say. Case in point, Jeff gives peace of mind to his employees at WeHo Bistro. When insurance options fell through for his staff, he balanced it out. “What I did instead was put aside a certain amount of money for when somebody has an emergency,” he tells me, “then we have a fund to pay for their healthcare.”
Jeff affords his employees peace of mind in the future, too. When he passes away, he’s leaving the restaurant to his staff. “I own it for now, but my will specifies that it will become a cooperative when I die and people get different shares, depending on how long they’ve been here and what they do.”
Jeff cares about peace so much, that it’s like an unwritten rule in his bistro. While most restaurants are fraught with tension between the front and back — e.g., temperamental cooks and egotistical waiters — Jeff’s bistro won’t be fueled by such friction: “I told people there’s no arguing, because if you argue, there’s a 50–50 chance you’re wrong and that’s not very smart.” His staff has had to learn to be self-regulating, as Jeff’s also not keen on playing referee: Should there be a tiff, he prefers his employees write it down and think about it. After they’ve calmed down, the next day, if they still think they’re right or still care, then they can bring it up to him. “So we don’t argue about anything,” he tells me. “We have a very peaceful place and people feel it.”
Of course, the peace at WeHo Bistro serves its patrons well: Not only are they kept from sensing tension, but the lack of strife allows for better energy, which might even make the food better. Jeff explains, “Customers say ‘Jeff, I’m having the same thing as I had before when it was the other restaurant, but it tastes better.’” Jeff asked his chefs why the food tastes better, and they tell him they feel the love coming up from the ground. Like those geraniums.
All of this love coming from beneath ground makes more sense, when you realize that WeHo Bistro has its roots in love. The restaurant was the endeavor of Jeff and his husband at the time, Jerry, who passed away in 2016. The couple was looking for a new business to buy, and the clock was ticking: Jerry was about to have knee-replacement surgery, which would put him out of commission, so they wanted to get something fast. After finding nothing they liked, at the eleventh hour they finally did: One night, Jerry’s suggested they dine at the restaurant that was where WeHo Bistro is now. Jeff tasted the mushroom soup and the bread pudding, and the rest is West Hollywood history: “The owner wanted to sell his business and move back to France, and I bought the restaurant that night,” Jeff tells me.
Though the restaurant there previously had a few dishes Jeff really liked, that was the extent of what impressed him. The owners didn’t really care about the neighborhood, and the decor was shabby with posters on the wall. Most detrimental perhaps was the restaurant’s coolness: They had regular customers who loved dining there, but management told the staff not to talk with them. “That’s probably why it wasn’t succeeding very well,” Jeff surmises. “So my goal was to have a place people want to come to all the time, and to embrace where we were and bring a little life to this corner.”
It wasn’t always easy. People warned them the prime location was, ironically, a handicap. They called their spot on the corner of La Cienega and Holloway a “death trap,” where businesses went to die. Jeff and Jerry were determined to change that corner’s fate by embracing where they were — and they did.
Their highly trafficked location may still be hiding in plain sight: “You’ve driven by 1,000 times…,” the purple banner signage declares. Everyone has seen WeHo Bistro, but many still haven’t dined there. Perhaps people don’t think they have parking — they do, three levels of it, more parking than seats in fact.
But Jeff isn’t hurting: His business is primarily made up of repeat customers. At least half of his patrons dine at his bistro more than once a week. The staff knows most of their customers, and the customers know them. They’re loyal, that’s for sure: When the bistro had undergone six months of renovation, its patrons had to use the restrooms down the street. Luckily, everything’s now running like a well-oiled machine.
Managing to keep a restaurant successful throughout six months of construction is no mean feat. Though renovations were likely stressful, they weren’t a match for Jeff. He has a strong mettle, curated by challenges from which he emerged smelling like roses — or geraniums, as the case may be.
Life early on posed significant challenges for Jeff. He was raised in Montreal. A far cry from the decadent “gay village” on Saint Catherine Street, back in the 1960s and early 70s, it was illegal to be gay there. “The Supreme Court actually upheld the rule that being gay was a criminal offense, for which you were put away for life,” Jeff tells me. Such disapproval and condemnation might leave an indelible mark on a gay man, but it’s helped shape Jeff into who he is today: “When I decided I had to be happy being gay, I also decided that I had to be happy living, and that living happy was a choice. If you decide to live happily, then you live happily,” he says, trailing off into laughter.
Making the decision to be happy was not always easy. Jeff had to bury two husbands. He’s gone through his depressed stages of mourning, but now he has an exceptional appreciation for being alive. Ask him what he likes most about himself, he explains, “My love for life. Enjoying every breath.”
Strong and stoic, Jeff Douek is also very much in the moment, but he wasn’t always: Like many successful men, he was rather type-A: “I lived that kind of stressful life where you’re always running, always not accomplishing everything you want to accomplish.” As Jeff sips his cappuccino, life is clearly different today. “Now I just enjoy every moment.”
In addition to dancing in the mornings and eating well, he enjoys yoga, meditating, and more. “Skiing, surfing and sex,” he likes. “All things that start with S,” he says, joking. He recently went to Miami to attend the Winter Music Conference and the Ultra Music Festival, where he danced for seven days straight. “I danced at least half the day for seven days in a row,” he tells me. (I get a thought and I am distracted. He can tell.) As we sit in the outside dining area, surrounded by geraniums and content diners, I share my thoughts.
“You know,” I tell him. “I feel like I’m in Paris.”
Jeff laughs. Apparently, everyone who comes to WeHo Bistro feels like they’re someplace else. “One of the things that I noticed from talking to people here every day is WeHo Bistro reminds them of a place they like. Another place than from where they come from, whether it’s Montreal, Paris, New York.” His customers’ fond memories inspired him to create a WeHo Bistro passport that has the same look and feel as a U.S. passport. Patrons get their picture taken which goes inside the blue booklet which features his drink menu. Each time patrons have a beverage, the passport gets stamped; once enough stamps accrue, they get free drinks.
The travel theme is also expressed with their postcards which feature the bistro’s food and beverages. “You can send a friend a postcard, and the person who receives it can get a free drink,” he explains.
You can even become an ambassador of WeHo Bistro, which gets you access to their prix-fix menu. There’s even a quick, impromptu knighting ceremony. You can tell Jeff gets a kick out of watching my reaction as he dubs me with a plastic sword, conferring my knighthood. I am now an Ambassador.
Maybe it’s when he dances or partakes in one of the S things he likes that such light and creative ideas from Jeff unfold.
He wished to have a place people wanted to come to all the time and embrace. He’s created one that’s more colorful and upscale than “Cheers,” but where everybody knows your name. A place where you feel like you’re at home, but more exciting — like you’re in another country. A place where divine food delights your palate and pleases your brain. A place that proves when you nourish the fields within, flowers grow wherever you are.