Café Aroma’s most recent owner, Hubert Halkin said, “It was a time in my life when I was an adventurist, primarily paragliding and hand gliding. Case in point, above Black beach is the UC San Diego chancellor’s home and, as chair of the math department at UC La Jolla [UCSD], I felt it my obligation to arrive at a reception he was hosting on a paraglider,” Halkin recalls. “But 50 years ago, it was rock climbing that first enticed me to Idyllwild; after that first visit nature took its course.”
Halkin’s adventurism doesn’t stop there. With no restaurant or business experience, he bought Café Aroma in 2002. “I had no interest in anything remotely like a restaurant except that a colorful guy with a lot of style named Mark Steinfeld created Café Aroma in Idyllwild. I got the idea of a restaurant which would form the basis for a social club to support the artistry of music, painting, poetry and the retired prototypical, ‘intellegencia’ that occupy this forest.”
“I never intended to be a business man. On my business cards I always listed myself as ‘Accidental Owner,’ said Halkin. Through Halkin’s lens an auspicious vision took shape. Conversationalists of all ilk and idle met often to hold court on a vast array of topics. Writers could write all day on a few cups of coffee, no problem. Proposals of all manner floated in the air between friends, partners and lovers. For 16 enviable years Café Aroma served up much more than dining in an eclectic space.
Music, often extraordinary, performed by eclectic local or regional talent surrounded most every meal. The Café also benefited from reviews by the Los Angeles Times, Urban and Yelp to keep tourists in the know. Counted on for superb meals this quintessential space held a serious sweet spot for authentic connecting between locals. Halkin remembers the Caines [Geoffrey and Renate] were a fixture for a decade, sharing daily breakfast with friends come rain or shine at table 3.
“Herb Jeffries, a lyrical tenor, performed with many bands in the U.S. and Europe, owned a nightclub in Paris, made movies in the 1940s and was the last surviving member of the Duke Ellington band, lived in Idyllwild. He became so totally enamored with the town we named a room after him in the restaurant. We held his 95th birthday at Aroma only to find out that when he was 15 he lied about his birthdate and it stuck. His wife only figured out his true age at the party. He would sometimes arrive at the Café at 7 a.m. and chat with anyone who would come by, in true raconteur [story teller] fashion, he stayed one day until 11 p.m.,” recalls Halkin.
“When I bought the Café Aroma, I became friends with prominent jazz musician Barnaby Finch. Barnaby often played music at the Paradise Café on the corner of highways 371 and 74. He was also an interesting person who struck a delicate balance between art and science. His was a well-founded decision to become a musician, but it was always in the offing should he decide to become a mathematician. Due to our friendship, Barnaby became my mentor in designing the musical program for Aroma,” said Halkin.
“Daniel Levy is a prominent professor of microbiology at the USC, and his wife Jane plays viola. Daniel Levy also grew up wondering whether he should pursue music or science. He flipped a coin and chose science. He and his wife are great supporters of IAA and annually held a benefit in their studio which I never missed,” said Halkin.
“What I love about Idyllwild are the artists, visual, musical and literary, and most especially those rare individuals who straddle both camps, the arts and sciences ... I have a story to tell you,” Halkin mused. “When we bought the Café, there were few musical events in town. Within 10 years on one weekend there were twenty seven! I think we added to that legacy.
“The cultural history of Café Aroma also includes plays, and the first play starred Mick Lynch, playing an Irish drunk, and, oh, how he nailed it! It was a sensational play. The beat poetry nights organized by Myra Dutton have been integral, so much talent lives here, they never missed a beat,” Halkin added.
“We also had a hiking club who met at the Café. Dore Capitani placed one of his amazing metal bowls in a tree at the Café which we love. To see all the extremely unusual people who live here and the art shows we sponsored at the Café, plus we even own a painting by Audrey Carver, a graduate of IAA. I’m sure I am missing quite a few contributors to the scene at Café Aroma. Our manager, Ken Carter has a remarkable life as an impresario, musician, vocalist, screen writer, film maker and restaurateur. Wendy Fender is also amazing,” said Halkin.
Manager Ken Carter orchestrated an incredible period in Aroma’s final two year history under Halkin’s ownership. He led an amazing staff, some who’d worked there for 10 years, with a management style that brought to bear southern hospitality coupled with an artist’s eye.
“First time guests after a day hike who found themselves eating gourmet food on an uneven deck, listening to outstanding live music surrounded by eclectic art in a pristine forest setting, would often ask ‘Where are we,’ much like the way Feng Shui rules physical space design in eastern cultures. There’s something special about the energies in Idyllwild,” said Carter.
“Our chef Ryan Darling, aka Peanut, was a naturally passionate and gifted chef who proved in some ways his lack of training meant he didn’t know you don’t serve four star food produced in a kitchen designed for a coffee shop into a venue that’s little more than a polished up picnic area. He just delivered the best he could come up with French, Nuevo Latin, Asian and So Cal influences. The result was a consistently four star menu served in simple style,” chuckles Carter.
“You can see a parallel in this to Idyllwild itself. The Café Aroma was a distillation of all that is Idyllwild,” said Carter. Hill Champion once said to me “You’ve relit the fire in the fireplace, it had gone out.”
As a musician Carter installed a little marquee, built a small stage added a curtain and lights, invited musicians in six nights a week, and set easels on the street so chalk board art announced music. The last few years have been peak Aroma! The artistic improvements Carter made include Gary Kuscher’s handmade manzanita railings, lowering a wall, a return of artwork to niches plus subtle changes to the back gallery walls to include large pieces.
“I was responding to what Hubert created by adding inexpensive elements. We began using the back deck for special events, which I’d hoped to develop into a Tapas Bar. Both the Casey Abrams room and Herb Jeffries room lent their enduring auras to the Café’s unique style. This was Hubert’s extraordinary commitment to have live music six nights a week and three times on Saturday and Sunday,” said Carter.
Hubert Halkin said in closing, “Now I’m unable to manage without electricity, so we escaped the recent fire with the two cats to the desert. I remember, when the electricity went out during the 2013 fire, I went to Fairway to buy ice. The manager said, “I can’t sell anything the registers are down.” I said here’s $500 cash for all your melting ice, we struck a deal and the ice saved all our food.”
“During this recent fire, Wendy called at Ken’s request to ask to take the food to Paul White at the Bake and Brew for the fire fighters. They ultimately transported it all to the portable fridge at the fire department and I recently received a thank you from a firefighter’s mother for the lobster tail dinner her son thoroughly enjoyed. A fitting end I think,” Halkin continued.
“My health is taking all my attention these days, and at 82 I think it’s probably appropriate,” he said, “The best decision I made was to marry Kathy 15 years ago, if we hadn’t married I might be dead. I bought a home in La Jolla for my retirement, but I’d rather be here, gazing out my window.”
“Regarding the renovation sign, the place has been for sale since March. We are receiving bites and believe an offer is coming so some redesigns are under consideration,” Halkin said in closing.
Bob Hughes Properties lists the restaurant sale details on their website.