By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
The e-mail was very specific: Bring $100 cash in an envelope. Be on time; you will not be admitted if you arrive more than 15 minutes late. Additional guests are strictly forbidden.
I show up early, but from the outside, the converted car showroom, off a desolate stretch of Broadway at the base of Elysian Park, looks abandoned — unless you count the two characters nearby taking inventory of their shopping carts. I double-check the directions. This is the place — green building with black-and-white graffiti art. Then the metal garage door lifts and I duck in. Large glass windows surround the Mercedes parked inside, like a jewel in a display case. The door immediately closes behind me. I feel like I’ve just entered a Bond movie.
Another door opens and I’m greeted by an attractive woman in a slinky black dress with a plunging neckline. This must be Sherry Walsh, tonight’s host.
“Welcome to Secret Restaurant,” she says as she ushers me inside. The shabbiness of the exterior melts away like an ice cube in bourbon. Beyond the entrance, ceilings soar 20 feet and the exposed brick walls give the place a castle-like quality. A wooden sign hangs on a wall; its cracked paint reads, “Marvimon House.” Walsh looks back at me from her post at the door and says, “Go ahead, feel free to look around.”
The main room stretches nearly 50 feet, with a table almost as long in the middle and 25 chairs lining each side. At one end a U-shaped velvet couch that could hold 20 close friends faces a theater-size screen flickering with Fellini images. The sommelier, a wine merchant from Silverlake Wine, thrusts a glass of Prosecco in my hand. I sip the bubbly and walk past the kitchen, lit from above by exotic swag lamps and busy with chefs on loan for the evening from La Terza, moving at a frenetic pace, dicing, sautéing and stirring. The smell of truffles spikes the air.
Secret Restaurant happens every other month by strict invitation only, sort of like a secret society with Walsh and her husband, Miguel Nelson, as the Lord and Lady of the manor. Soon, 50 strangers with cash-filled envelopes will arrive — reality television stars of yesterday, bankers, florists, wine merchants and Australian models on holiday — and poke around Walsh and Nelson’s home, touch their things, scuff their floors, and undoubtedly look in their medicine cabinet (okay, that’s me).
The back yard is aglow under large-bulb string lights, the kind you’d see at an old-time carnival. Slowly guests congregate on the outdoor, L-shaped velour sofa, or mingle on the lush green grass. Hidden at one end, and covered by prehistoric-looking ferns, is an outdoor claw-foot bathtub. Just as I’m getting comfortable, Nelson calls guests to the dinner table, where a six-course feast is served — truffled eggs, risotto with mushrooms, short ribs, loin of beef. Dish after dish is devoured, then whisked away to make room for the next.
Secret Restaurant is just one reason total strangers invade Walsh and Nelson’s home. They also rent out the house for movie shoots, TV shows and music videos.
“A lot of people think it’s a Hollywood set; they don’t realize it’s our home,” Walsh says. “People put their feet on the walls, on the kitchen counter, gum on the floor, stuff like that. I’m learning to be a little less bitchy. When there’s a crew here, we lock ourselves in our bedroom, seal off our private bath, and lounge in there for a few days. It becomes our hotel suite.”
They put up with the headaches because it’s how they’re able to maintain Marvimon House, which came into existence due to a series of love affairs, beginning with theirs. They met online at Nerve.com. Walsh, a born-and-raised L.A. girl, figured Nelson’s thick Magnum PI mustache and long ’70s haircut was a costume. “I thought, ‘This guy has the same sense of humor as me.’ I had to write him,” she says, laughing.
“And I do,” Nelson says with a smirk as he grabs her hand, “but I’m living it.”
They soon discovered they had a mutual love of shopping, were eBay-aholics and antiques freaks. Meanwhile, Nelson, who was living in San Francisco, fell in love with both Walsh and L.A., so he decided to stay and buy a building that he could do “something interesting with.” But where? He hardly knew the city. “You can learn a lot about real estate by going out at night. I saw this,” says Nelson surveying his domain, “and knew it had potential. I could tell it was in an odd area, but it was the right price.”
The building was a 1920s car showroom and warehouse, owned by the Italian race-car driver Dominic Basso back when this part of Elysian Park was considered Little Italy. Nelson bought the space, and another love affair began. Despite his lack of architecture and building experience, Nelson “geeked out,” as he puts it, spending hours on the computer creating models and renderings. The space was his virtual sculpture. He came up with the money to buy a few hours of help from a couple of architects, enough for a walk-through. One suggested creating parking on the ramp used years ago to bring cars from the alley into the showroom in the original structure.
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