Venice’s James Beach closed on September 18, marking an end-of-run for the 26-year-old restaurant. James Beach had long served the Venice community as a reliable place to dine or drink, but also a safe Westside space for the queer community. Owners James Evans and Daniel Samakow told Eater LA they are moving on to future projects, but the shutter represents the loss of another key queer space in Southern California.
Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, Southern California’s vital queer spaces have continued to close, including longstanding spots like Oil Can Harry’s, Gold Coast, and Rage. Many of these businesses have turned to GoFundMe for financial assistance. In 2021, Akbar in Silver Lake raised more than enough funds to stay in business, but James Beach is calling it quits because Evans and Samakow are simply ready for change.
Prior to James Beach opening in 1996, Venice’s restaurant choices were a far cry from the cushy, moneyed spots like Felix Trattoria, the Tasting Kitchen, and Great White that are now a staple of the neighborhood. From the 1970s to the 1990s, Venice restaurants leaned toward taco joints or the casual Hinano Cafe, touristy spots along the Boardwalk, or early innovators like the nearly 43-year-old Hama Sushi. As for queer spaces, the Westside held few spots for the community, save for the Roosterfish bar, which opened in 1979.
Evans and Samakow fatefully met in 1982 at James Beach’s predecessor, West Beach Cafe. Bartender Dennis Murray — who worked at James Beach until it closed — served them drinks just three years before the couple took over and opened James Beach in 1996. The two felt they were young enough to try out the restaurant business, thinking that if it didn’t work out, they could try something else. In 1996, rent one-half block away from the beach was between $4,000 and $5,000. It’s currently $26,000 per month.
“Before we were together, I was working at 72 Market Street, which was the only other great restaurant in Venice,” says Evans. “I started as a busboy and worked my way up to general manager. One of the regulars suddenly said [I] should buy it because I loved the neighborhood. Daniel and I did love the West Beach because we had met there and lived next door to it.”
Evans and Samakow say that openly gay business owners weren’t a common sight. “In those days, we were also openly gay and a couple with a lesbian chef — Shari Lynne Robins — who joined us. We were also the safe space for so many people.”
James Beach’s distinctive style also stood out. Those who visited over the decades may recall the swim trunks light fixtures, the leather booths, lush foliage, and bright patio. The interior design is from local, renowned artist Billy Al Bengston, including his Gold’s Gym weight steel window and brass trellis gate. Samakow’s skill as a painter also came in handy. Much of the art hanging on James Beach’s walls was actually created by Samakow. The restaurant was also a popular spot for the film and television industry, appearing in multiple episodes and the reunion episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, plus in a fish taco moment shared by Paul Rudd and Jason Segel in the film I Love You, Man.
The owners engaged with the local community in other ways, too. Samakow and Evans were essential in installing the lit “Venice” sign on Windward Avenue at Pacific. The sign was originally installed in 1905 by the developer and conservationist Abbot Kinney. Samakow says local businesses and citizens worked for years to get it reinstalled, but the California Coastal Commission required a permit. “People were trying to get the lit Venice up for nine years,” says Samakow. “But the Coastal Commission wouldn’t do it unless the city gave us a permit. I suggested they put it up under a temporary Christmas light permit and helped raise $28,000. The sign went up in 2007, and it’s been there ever since.”
As far as their decision to close the iconic beach hang-out on North Venice, Samakow cites the overall effect of the industry going through radical change over a compressed period. “I’ve been doing this for over 27 years,” says Samakow. “We’re lucky enough to be healthy and alive. I’m 70 and felt that after all this time to try something new. The restaurant business has just changed dramatically. We felt the model, price points, and the kind of food we had wasn’t working as well as it had in the past. It was time for us to move on.”
Evans adds that creating a deep sense of community kept them running James Beach for as long as they did. “It’s shocking the connection families and loved ones had with that restaurant,” he says. “The last month has been this outpouring of love and support. For me, [I’ll miss] that I won’t be able to keep up with everyone.”
Samakow will miss James Beach as a community gathering spot, but also points to the restaurant’s support of Planned Parenthood, plus helping launch the Venice Art Crawl and Venice Pride after Roosterfish closed. “I’ll miss Easter, when kids would sit at the bar and dye Easter eggs, or Christmas when we made our own eggnog and had carolers come in. It was like a winter wonderland.”