By Nila Do Simon
Photography By Felipe Cuevas
Few things about Chillbar scream “exclusive.” Sure, the wait to get a coveted seat at the Hollywood brunch spot can extend into the late afternoon, but its quirky characteristics—think a tin roof, no air conditioning and a co-owner/hostess who belts out songs in the middle of service—disguise its true character as a fine dining establishment.
Disproving the idea that gourmet cuisine is confined to high-end hotels backed by big-name investors is a favored pastime of Chillbar owners, husband and wife Frank and Elizabeth Becker. After all, with decades’ worth of experience at swanky restaurants in South Florida and Philadelphia—including at Diplomat Prime in Hollywood—the couple wanted to show that their path, though untraditional, could work.
Enter Chillbar. Essentially tucked in the parking lot of the bustling Yellow Green Farmer’s Market, an open-air shopping experience off Sheridan Street in Hollywood, the only thing shielding the six-year-old restaurant from passing cars are thin bamboo-covered walls over 2×4 wood frames. On paper, nothing about the restaurant should work. If the no-frills location wasn’t challenging enough, add the fact that Chillbar is only open on weekends (when the market is open) between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., and it’s an unorthodox recipe for any restaurateur. But the concept has thrived, with droves of diners known to wait hours for a comforting plate of shrimp and grits and a fruit-infused mimosa.
“If you look at the restaurant, it looks like you have two old hippies doing something crazy,” Frank says. “But in actuality, there are two people with more than 40 years of experience behind it.”
Conceptually, the Beckers squeezed several ideas into the 50-seat space. The front of the restaurant is loosely modeled after Spain’s Alhambra fortress, complete with a flowing fountain—one of the first purchases Elizabeth made with the couple’s initial $2,800 capital (“I just had to have it,” she says). They also wanted Chillbar to be a space where diners could share ideas and talk openly about esoteric thoughts. In the earliest incarnations of the restaurant, Elizabeth would even walk around with novels in her hand, hoping to spark conversations.
“I wanted to open a literary salon in the traditional fashion of Paris in the ’20s, where people could talk about ideas freely like Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein did,” says Elizabeth, a tiara-wearing hostess known in these parts as “the Empress of Chill.” “Food is an excellent communications tool, and sharing a meal with someone crosses boundaries you wouldn’t think about.”
Married for 37 years, the Beckers met at a restaurant in Philadelphia, where Frank was a chef and Elizabeth worked as a server and bartender while studying opera at the Curtis Institute of Music. Frank, who had been a chef since age 14, learned from master chef Hiro Hayashi and also studied macrobiotics in Boston. Frank and Elizabeth eventually opened an apothecary-inspired restaurant in Philadelphia in the early 1980s, a concept even they admit was too radical for the times.
“It was all about sustainable, high-end food, and it had a craft bar with only organic ingredients,” Elizabeth says. “Something like that would work today, but we opened in the ’80s and were way ahead of the curve. We even consulted with a Chinese herbalist and made cocktails out of herbs that would provide healing benefits. That got a lot of stares back in the day.”
After closing that restaurant and moving to Ibiza, Spain, to get away from it all, the Beckers longed to return stateside. They were on their way to California when they made a stop in Florida to visit relatives and check out Miami’s art deco scene. They instantly fell in love with the area.
“I asked my wife if she would rather see the sun set or the sun rise,” Frank says. “She said sun rise, and that was it.”
Roughly 30 years later, the Beckers are flourishing at an age that may be considered the twilight of some careers. For them, Chillbar satisfies what Frank calls a “primal” instinct.
“Frank needed to cook,” Elizabeth says. “That’s what he does. When he comes home at 2 in the morning, he’ll start cooking.”
A self-proclaimed “farmers market kind of guy,” Frank spent years working as head captain in the antithesis of a farmers market: the Diplomat Prime, a fine dining establishment inside a four-diamond resort. When the couple opened Chillbar in 2011, Frank would often work seven days a week between the two jobs before he decided to fully focus on Chillbar a couple of years into owning the business.
Even though Chillbar laid-back setting is in contrast to Diplomat Prime’s white-tablecloth feel, Frank still wanted to offer guests a four-diamond culinary experience with attentive, personalized service. The menu is crafted with a certain diner in mind: a hungry one. The colorful plates and bowls are filled to the brim with locally sourced, natural foods; and ingredients are made from scratch, including the buttermilk, baking powder and butter used for pancakes.
The Beckers present South Floridians with an American brunch concept consisting of classic comfort food and drinks with a twist. The eggs Benedict get their own personality with a dusting of citrus saffron, and the quasi-traditional Southern biscuits and gravy include parmesan cheddar polenta with a side of chutney.
“Our plates reflect the bounty of nature,” Frank says. “Architecturally beautiful plates, those are for people who aren’t hungry. I want to cook for people who want to eat.”
Not to be ignored is the restaurant’s cocktail menu. Elizabeth felt inspired by all the bloody mary bars popping up at brunch spots, so in classic Becker fashion, she created a spin on a conventional brunch bar. Instead of bloody marys, diners can find a mimosa bar filled with exotic flavors such as pear lychee, lavender and blueberry pomegranate.
Food and drinks aside, there’s a feel to Chillbar. Elizabeth and Frank are known to grab a seat and converse about every topic they were taught to avoid, from politics and religion to space travel (that’s a long story, Frank says). For guests who are celebrating a birthday at Chillbar, Elizabeth often stops service and leads the dining hall in a rendition of “Happy Birthday” with her sonorous voice.
While the restaurant attracts all types of clientele, from vegans to hippies to businesspeople looking to kick back, the Beckers are quick to note that Chillbar isn’t for everybody.
“We are living in a corporate dining experience reality,” Frank says. “We don’t play that game. You are a guest in our home. And you know what? You are an honored guest.”