The Israelis Who Hipsterized a New York Restaurant Chain

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The Westville team: Standing, Shai Lokoff, left, Giora Motzkin, Idan Peretz. Sitting: Matan Hammer, left, Jay Strauss, Yaniv Cohen.
The Westville team: Standing: Shai Lokoff, left, Giora Motzkin, Idan Peretz. Sitting: Matan Hammer, left, Jay Strauss, Yaniv Cohen. Credit: Westville

 It’s an evening at the restaurant Westville in Chelsea. The place is packed and a long line stretches outside – a half-hour wait. The crowd, as befits the neighborhood, is stylish. Once they called it yuppie. Now they call it hipster.

Westville, a pleasant American restaurant with a friendly atmosphere and unpretentious food, is famous for its salads and hamburgers. Its signature dish is macaroni and cheese, which The Village Voice named one of New York’s 10 best mac-and-cheese efforts.

The restaurant’s founder is chef Jay Strauss, who describes himself as someone who never learned to cook properly. But being self-taught with a lot of passion, he created a cuisine that jibes with the New York trend of fresh and healthy food.

At the beginning of the restaurant’s journey, he met Yaniv Cohen, and Israeli from Kibbutz Maabarot, who became an employee. Soon he became a full-fledged partner.

Other Israelis joined over the years: Idan Peretz of Tel Mond, Matan Hammer of Yesud Hama’ala, Giora Motzkin of Kibbutz Maabarot, Yaniv Cohen of Kibbutz Maabarot and Shai Lochoff of Hod Hasharon. These Israelis also had little or no experience in the restaurant business. Cohen says Strauss wasn’t looking for partners who would give him money, but simply partners who would work with him.

Smoky mac & cheese at Westville, a downtown Manhattan restaurant chain.Credit: Elion Paz

Many of the rank-and-file employees are Israelis too. On my first visit there, the bartender was a Tel Avivian named Eran. On my second visit, the shift manager was an Israeli named Yahali.

Strauss says that every time he goes to Israel he meets up with some of his former employees. But before I rush to declare another successful Israeli restaurant in New York, Peretz, the guy from Tel Mond, warns me not to mistake Westville for an Israeli locale.

“It certainly isn’t. We also don’t aim for an Israeli crowd,” Peretz says. “If Israelis come to eat, all the better, but our main concept is to target the neighborhood residents.”

Strauss, 54, founded the restaurant in 2003 and worked there 70 hours a week, but with the Israeli newcomers he began slowing down a bit. He’s still the main chef, but he delegates authority; the Israelis in their 30s do the day-to-day work.

The partnership has spawned another three restaurants, all in downtown Manhattan with branches in the West Village, the East Village, Chelsea and Hudson Square. The partners are working on opening two more branches, one near Wall Street and the other in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Westville draws the likes of Cameron Diaz, Louis C.K., Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill.

Veggie-friendly Westville is also big on burgers.Credit: Elion Paz

“Actors come here all the time, and I don’t know them,” Cohen says. “I hear about them from my staff, some of whom are actors themselves.”

Strauss says he doesn’t agree with the claim that Israelis don’t know how to provide service. He says his partners are hard-working people with initiative and an analytical approach. If it weren’t for them, the franchise might not have gotten as far as it has, he says.

While I interview Strauss, he’s eating a bowl of rice with vegetables that include zucchini, carrots, Brussels sprouts and avocado, with chipotle. Everything is fresh.

“Nothing here sits in the refrigerators,” says one of his partners. The restaurant, they add, highlights its vegetable dishes. They serve dishes with more than 20 vegetables in various combinations. The restaurant receives two vegetable deliveries a day, treating the vegetables gingerly whether over the grill or in the oven.

So what else do they serve? Among the high-profile dishes, there’s macaroni and cheese made from smoked Gouda, or crab cakes with spicy tartar. Their cobb salad includes grilled chicken, bacon, avocado, blue cheese over romaine and mixed greens with balsamic lemon dill vinaigrette.

The green most identified with Westville might be the sturdy Brussels sprout, served at Westville win a honey-Dijon sauce. The most popular dish is the Westville Market plate, where, eating in, you can choose four vegetables for $17.