Readers Choice 2014: Time to Celebrate


Whether the bands play “Hava Nagila,” R&B or the best of Gershwin, music feeds the spirit, creating a joyous, party atmosphere. These bands, which perform throughout the Bay Area, are winners with our readers.

Ben Malament, drummer and co-founder of the California Honeydrops, calls his Oakland-based group a “party band” that plays music for dancing. The group began in 2007 by playing in BART stations. “We had our voices, a horn, a washboard and a tub bass, otherwise known as the ‘Soul Tub,’ ” he said. Since then, they have taken their party to performances and festivals around the world, playing R&B, funk, Southern soul and Delta blues. The band plays at weddings, and Malament’s “personal dream” is to play at a bar or bat mitzvah. “The Jewish community has been great to the band in many ways,” he says. This sense of community “enabled us to build a strong fan base of great, fun-loving people and turn our passion into a full-time job that keeps our bubbes proud.”

The seven-piece Gatsby Band, led by Frank Goldstein and emceed by son Adam, specializes in Jewish entertainment: weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs and private events. “The band plays like a DJ with a wide array of songs or all styles for all ages, and with years of experience can seamlessly transition from song to song without stopping the beat or flow of the party,” says Adam Goldstein, who launched Gatsby Entertainment a year ago with partner Jason Mitchell. “Plus we add a DJ and emcee to all packages to allow for nonstop entertainment and an even wider array of music options.” Gatsby Entertainment also supplies dancers, magicians, stilt walkers and other performers.

Joel Nelson, who has been in the local entertainment industry since 1981, leads his own band and also provides DJs, emcees, dancers and specialty entertainment to the Bay Area’s Jewish market. “We understand the traditions of a Reform event as well as an Orthodox event,“ says Nelson. “We sing in Hebrew, teach Israeli dances if requested and can even lead the Birkat [the grace after meals]. We also keep training new young emcees to keep things fresh.” The company also supplies jugglers, acrobats, magicians and comedians and has a photography, lighting and sound division.

Manhattan Towers, one of Joel Nelson Productions’ top bands for more than 25 years, performs current hits, ’80s, ’90s and even old classics from the ’40s through the ’70s, says Nelson. “This band does it all. This band is really a true variety band, which is hard to find these days.” The band always includes a DJ and is noted for “nonstop, high-class entertainment,” providing an excellent fit for almost any event.

Bay Area

California Honeydrops


(818) 515-5869

Gatsby Band


(925) 200-7391

Joel Nelson Band

San Jose

(800) 578-5780

Manhattan Towers

San Jose

(800) 578-5780



When it comes to kosher catering, our readers also look for fresh, seasonal ingredients, stylish presentations, sustainability and, above all, taste. The following caterers are favorites.

Epic Bites, based in Oakland, “is about bringing food-focused catering back to kosher events,” says chef and owner Isaac Bernstein, “focusing on sustainable ingredients and using as much local produce as possible.” He particularly enjoys catering private dinners, which allows his staff “to get to know the people we are cooking for. It also lets us see their reactions in real time instead of in an email.” Bernstein, who initially focused on artisan bread baking and pastry skills, later immersed himself in fine kosher dining in New York. His goal, according to his website, is “combining the flavors of the non-kosher palate with the traditions he grew up with.”

Too Caterers, the kosher subsidiary of Continental Caterers in Palo Alto, is a perennial readers’ favorite, providing kosher food for a health-conscious clientele. In addition to b’nai mitzvah celebrations and weddings, the company has catered many Jewish community events, offering dairy, meat and child-friendly options for buffets and sit-down dinners. It’s also the exclusive kosher caterer at the Westin St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. “I take seriously [the fact] that food is a part of Jewish history,” says Wendy Kleckner, Too Caterers’ general manager. “For a lot of brides and grooms we get that don’t come from a traditional background, we bring them tradition.”

East Bay

Epic Bites Catering


(845) 642-4230


South Bay/Peninsula

Too Caterers

Palo Alto

(650) 322-4189



Hosts seek caterers who can match their tastes in foods, whether they prefer cuisine like Grandma’s, Asian fusion or California vegetarian. These caterers are some of our readers’ favorites.

Like many East Coast–style Jewish delicatessens, Miller’s East Coast Deli also caters, providing pastrami, corned beef and other deli specialties for family parties, receptions, business lunches, brit milah — you name it. “We have spent the past decade sourcing the most authentic and highest-quality traditional deli foods we can find,” says owner Robby Morgenstein, who has shops in San Francisco and San Rafael. In addition to deli sandwiches, the catering menu features knishes, kugel, latkes, deli trays, belly lox, sturgeon and white fish, plus breakfast items. Miller’s will deliver to the door.

Catering weddings, b’nai mitzvah, corporate lunches and more, Berkeley’s Jasmine specializes in cuisines including Asian, Middle Eastern, classic French, Italian, Californian and vegetarian. The full-service company also provides staff and rentals and usually can accommodate special dietary requests. “Everything is made from scratch,” says chef-owner Oded Hilu, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who founded his company 12 years ago. “Beginning with excellent ingredients and [giving] attention to detail, from the first-picked fruit to the decorative serving platter,” he adds, “we put a love of food and a passion of perfection into every food item we serve.”

A full-service company, Continental Caterers also specializes in event planning, whether it’s a wedding or bar/bat mitzvah, a backyard cocktail party or a fundraiser. “Above all, we try to come up with creative, healthy versions of chicken, fish and meat,” says Wendy Kleckner, an events specialist at Continental as well as the manager of its kosher subsidiary, who has been with the Palo Alto company since 1980. “After all these years, I still love to serve people,” she adds. The company also offers vegetarian options, as well as such traditional Jewish fare as chopped liver and knishes. “We invent traditional dishes in a very creative, product-driven, sustainable manner,” Kleckner observes.

 Ann Walker started her family-run San Anselmo catering company in 1976, offering one-stop, full-service catering. She designs personal menus for a variety of events, from weddings and private parties to film shoots and corporate affairs. Walker says she seeks out local, sustainable, seasonal and/or organic products to incorporate into menus and uses free-trade organic coffees. “The kitchen staff understands how important it is to offer the best-quality ingredients to our clients,” she says. Menus also include vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options as well as a variety of cuisines: Asian, Indian, Mexican and Spanish.

San Francisco

Miller’s East Coast Deli

(415) 563-3542


East Bay

Jasmine Catering


(510) 845-4378


South Bay/Peninsula

Continental Caterers

Palo Alto

(650) 322-4189


North Bay

Ann Walker Catering

San Anselmo

(415) 460-9885



A disc jockey enlivens a party, with song lists and patter that can be adapted to the function at hand. Our readers liked these party-time favorites.

Alan Waltz, who has entertained at bar mitzvahs for more than 10 years, started DJing as a hobby and formerly entertained at Walt Disney World. In addition to DJs, his 9-year-old San Jose–based company provides entertainers for all occasions throughout the Bay Area. He strives to merge “the energy of an East Coast party with the style of a West Coast party.” The entire staff “knows how to relate to kids,” he says. In that vein, a bar mitzvah boy mom writes: “You kept the kids engaged the whole time (except when they were eating) and everything went off without a hitch.”

Denon & Doyle started in 1984 “with one music system, working out of the garage, arriving at events in an old bread truck,” according to the website. These days, in addition to better equipment, the Pleasant Hill–based company has a stable of 25 DJs, interactive entertainment teams and photo booths, and a full-time office staff. Although he hesitates to say which events are his favorites, executive director Dan Ohrman has a soft spot for bar and bat mitzvah entertainment and is particularly honored to be part of a family’s celebration. When choosing a DJ, Ohrman encourages prospective clients to do more than window shop on the websites: ”Pick up the phone.”

Gatsby Entertainment, which also won in the Band category, was launched a year ago by Bay Area DJs Adam Goldstein and Jason Mitchell. The partners “spent the past 10 years behind the turntables, rocking both clubs and private events,” entertaining at more than 1,000 events, according to the website. They offer club-style, karaoke and video techniques and can supply lighting, photo booths, artists and theme-party entertainment.

 Bay Area

Alan Waltz Entertainment

San Jose

(408) 243-4931

Denon & Doyle Entertainment

Pleasant Hill

(800) 944-9585

Gatsby Entertainment


(925) 200-7391



Say it with flowers, which add an aura of elegance and create a memorable palette. Our readers chose the following florists, which are known for personal service and design.

Divisadero Florists, a family owned and operated business for three decades, offers both traditional and contemporary designs and will deliver seven days a week to San Francisco and surrounding counties. The florist has a large selection of tropical flowers and roses and will create arrangements in interesting color choices, including shades of purple, green or blue — even blue or green roses. Divisadero has five-star reviews for service and design on Yelp. One satisfied bride said her husband showed up at their City Hall wedding with “the most incredible, vibrant and beautiful bouquet and matching boutonniere I could have ever asked for,” all put together after he arrived at the florist that morning. “I was beyond impressed.”

When Sheryl Tynes was in first grade, she won a flower-arranging contest, “borrowing” flowers from her back yard, her neighbors’ yards and a wisteria across town. That bouquet, she writes, “had a field-to-vase look and an organic unstructured form I still admire.” Her passion took root, leading her to study floral design and open Thistle and Bone, based in Pinole but serving clients throughout the area. While she prides herself on using fresh, seasonal flowers and foliage, she also combines them with wood, berries, herbs and, of course, thistle and bone to create the unexpected, whether it’s a headdress, a centerpiece or a bride’s bouquet. Says Tynes: “I am passionate about creating uncommon floral designs that are a true reflection of [my client’s] vision.”

Serving clients by appointment in her Hillsborough studio, Mindy Rosenberg specializes in custom designs for weddings, b’nai mitzvah, social and corporate events. With a background in the hospitality industry, Rosenberg has focused on floral design for five years and says she “takes her design cues from her clients and Mother Nature.” On her website, she writes, “I have always found the combination of nature-inspired colors, textures and materials exciting, whether creating one-of-a-kind, semiprecious jewelry pieces or elegant, organic floral décor.” In addition to weddings and events, she does home décor and will deliver floral and orchid arrangements for special occasions.

San Francisco

Divisadero Florists

(415) 922-5455


East Bay

Thistle and Bone Floral Design


(661) 340-0379


South Bay/Peninsula

Mindy Rosenberg Design


(847) 826-2184



Whether a party is formal, casual or a little of both, the invitation sets the mood of anticipation. In an era of emails, a written invitation is even more special. Our readers voted for these designers.

Scribbledoodles is the stationery department of Just for Fun, a San Francisco gift and fine-art supply company founded in 1987. Co-owner David Eiland is particularly proud of the custom invitations “because of the creativity and the way we are able to give our customers exactly what they want and watch the smile on their face when they see the finished product.” While the company has a large catalog, designers also work with custom artwork or photographs to customize invitations. They also create handmade invitations from natural papers. The website has guides to weddings as well as thank-you notes: when to send them and how to word them.

When her son was born in 2001, Mimi Renfro-Rodriguez’s birth announcement led to requests for wedding invitations and the start of a new business: Creative Designs by Mimi. Since then, she has created invitations and announcements for friends, family and other clients. She offers complimentary one-hour consultations with prospective clients, by appointment, in her East Bay home studio. While she has catalogs available, she specializes in custom designs and stationery, offering “simple (or not so simple), always elegant and one-of-a-kind ‘outside the box’ invitations,” according to her website.

Susan Gildea has been creating personalized invitations, from whimsical to sophisticated, for 24 years, the last 12 in her store on Berkeley’s Ashby Avenue. Customers can add a photo, a ribbon and a personal touch, or search through the many designers that she carries. “Whether it’s invitations to a dream wedding or a child’s bar/bat mitzvah, a friend’s birthday party or an annual open house, sophisticated stationery or whimsical notepads,” Gildea says she’s committed to finding the right fit for her customer’s style and budget. “Answering a phone call from a mother-of-the bride to share rave reviews she’s receiving on her daughter’s wedding invitations or receiving an email saying ‘We’ll see you in four years for our daughter’s bat mitzvah’ brings a smile to my face.”

Founded in 1985 by Frosty Gross, Paper Pizzazz carries “a wide range of invitations for every mood and budget, from classic to contemporary, dignified to whimsical, frugal to decadent — and beyond. If you can’t find it here, it probably doesn’t exist,” says Gross, who serves clients by appointment in her home on the Peninsula. Emphasizing that “invitations set the tone” for an event, she says she can customize an invitation to a customer’s specifications and offer solutions to questions of etiquette. Speaking of etiquette, the Paper Pizzazz website offers useful hints on how to word invitations, as well as a planning guide for weddings.

San Francisco

Just for Fun

(415) 285-4068


East Bay

Creative Designs by Mimi

(925) 787-0665

Susan Gildea Personalized Printing


(510) 883-0890


South Bay/Peninsula

Paper Pizzazz

Palo Alto

(650) 858-0771


Party Planner

Organizing a celebration can be pure joy — or a colossal challenge. There are so many details to consider, from venue to catering to cost. Fortunately, a professional party planner can take away the stress, allowing you to relax and enjoy the event.

Christina Millikin, owner of San Francisco’s Glow Event Design, calls her staff a “dream team.” “My background is in fashion design, so I bring a creative eye to the table and help our clients with decor design and the event aesthetics,” she says. “Lauren North, our other lead planner, has a background in catering and venue management, as well as her sommelier certificate. Between the two of us and our talented assistants, we can handle any special needs a client may have.” Her company, which specializes in weddings, b’nai mitzvah, other social gatherings and corporate events, is a full-service event planning and design company, focusing on customer service. “We accept a limited number of events a year in order to have enough time available to each client and their specific needs.”

After orchestrating opening-night galas and other celebrations for the San Francisco Ballet, where he served as special events manager for eight years, Sam Leftwich launched his own business. Today the San Francisco–based Leftwich Event Specialists has a team of producers and designers who handle “everything from concept and design to production, creating memorable, seamless events,” says Leftwich. Clients include corporations, nonprofits and individuals. Social affairs run the gamut from engagement parties to scotch and cigar events. Weddings, in particular, bring Leftwich joy. “The love and support that fills the room and surrounds the couple validates that we did our job of creating lasting memories for the couple and everyone in attendance.”

Specializing in Jewish celebrations, the 4-year-old Simcha Sisters, run by sisters Shana Goldberg and Tanya Shore, is a full-service party-planning business based in Walnut Creek. The sisters manage celebrations “from the lighting of the candles to the cutting of the cake,” says Goldberg. In addition to weddings, b’nai mitzvah celebrations and other parties, they also do brit milah and baby-namings. “We are family run. We are Jewish and we understand the special rituals and traditions that are so very important to the simchas that we plan for our clients.” The sisters also organize simcha fairs at synagogues throughout the Bay Area, offering one-stop shopping to potential clients.

Amy Albert, owner of A Gala Event, wants her clients to be guests at their celebrations. With that in mind, her Peninsula-based company takes care of all the logistics and details, enabling the hosts to relax. Whether the party is a vampire weekend, a beach-themed bat mitzvah or a Las Vegas–style affair, she works with clients to put everything in place: music, flowers, photography, décor and seating arrangements. One satisfied client writes: “Amy is amazingly creative, flexible, cost conscious and listens to her clients. … Her love of planning shines through every minute.”

San Francisco

Glow Event Design

(415) 967-0553

Leftwich Event Specialists

(415) 409-9522


East Bay

Simcha Sisters

Walnut Creek

(925) 984-7024


South Bay/Peninsula

A Gala Event

Los Altos

(650) 814-5312


Party Venue

After setting the date, celebrants seek word-of-mouth recommendations for a venue that matches their vision for a special event. Our readers chose these locations as their favorites.

Congregation Emanu-El, in a domed 1926 San Francisco building constructed in the Moorish style, offers a variety of settings for weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs — as well as rabbis and a cantor to perform them. Facilities include the Guild Hall, a large ballroom with an optional dance floor; the Martin Meyer Reception Room, for luncheons, wedding ceremonies and smaller events; and the foyer, bordering the main sanctuary, for cocktail receptions. The outdoor courtyard, with a mosaic-tiled fountain, can also be used for parties “if you’re willing to take a chance on the weather,” according to the online resource “Here Comes the Guide.” Svetlana Leykin, Emanu-El’s special events director, coordinates receptions and parties.

With spectacular views of the city, hand-carved wood and a 20-foot stone fireplace, the historic Julia Morgan Ballroom presents an elegant setting for weddings and special events. Located in San Francisco’s 100-year-old Merchants Exchange Building, “the Julia Morgan Ballroom is quite simply a San Francisco institution,” says Phil Spiegel, general manager and vice president for sales at Merchants Exchange Productions. The Financial District facility has been hosting events since the early 1900s, with guests such as President Barack Obama and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. More than simply an elegant setting, the facility handles every aspect of event production, with its own culinary team providing food and beverages for buffets, sit-down dinners and cocktail receptions.

Located in Tilden Park in the Berkeley Hills, the Brazilian Room is surrounded by hiking trails and meadows, offering picturesque views for photography. The flagstone patio is frequently used for wedding ceremonies, and guests move inside for the reception. The wood-beamed facility, originally built by Brazil for the 1939 World’s Fair on Treasure Island, was dismantled and presented to the East Bay Regional Park District. The Works Progress Administration built a new permanent exterior using local rock and timber. The facility is open for viewing from 1 to 8 p.m. Tuesdays (except the fourth Tuesday of the month).

The Lafayette Park Hotel & Spa in the East Bay hills offers festive banquet rooms and cuisine for receptions as well as accommodations in a Norman-style building with modern amenities, evoking “the charm and comfort of French and European hospitality,” says Lolita Wong, sales and catering manager. An AAA Four Diamond award winner for 25 consecutive years, the facility is a family-owned business that provides “a home away from home for all of our guests,” she adds. Chef Adam Carpenter uses local and organically sourced items in the restaurant and catering menus, which include cocktail receptions, buffets and sit-down dinners. The facility offers both outdoor and indoor reception and ceremony areas, a swimming pool and fitness complex, and a day spa.

At Foster City’s Peninsula JCC, party-givers can take advantage of the facility’s sports and aquatics complex. “From pool parties at our beautiful outdoor pool, sports parties and other exciting themes, our birthday party staff ensures a successful, fun-filled day,” said Nicole Francis, youth, family and recreation director. “This allows parents to join the festivities with family and friends and celebrate their child’s special occasion.” For teens, the PJCC offers b’nai mitzvah and Sweet 16 parties. For younger kids, the facility provides an activity leader as well as an attendant. Options include gymnastics and sports parties, storybook character parties and science events.

The Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael offers myriad options for weddings, receptions and special dinners. The Hoytt Theater, for larger celebrations, features art deco–style chandeliers, a 30-foot ceiling with exposed beams, a full stage and a dance floor, plus a commercial kitchen. The courtyard is ideal for ceremonies and summer receptions, while the Plaza J trio of rooms — the lounge, atrium and gallery — can be used individually or in combination. “We have a really unique flow at events, as guests can come through the courtyard, rather than the reception area, so it’s more like your own space,” says Kiara Canales, event coordinator. Receptions, she adds, can begin with a cocktail hour and appetizers in the courtyard or Plaza J area and then move into the Hoytt Theater for sit-down dinners. The JCC also hosts birthday and theme parties.

San Francisco

Congregation Emanu-El

(415) 751-2541 ext. 123

Julia Morgan Ballroom

(415) 591-1833


East Bay

Brazilian Room

Tilden Park


(510) 544-3164

Lafayette Park Hotel and Spa


(925) 299-4388


South Bay/Peninsula

Peninsula JCC

Foster City

(650) 378-2666


North Bay

Osher Marin JCC

San Rafael

(415) 444-8084



Photographs preserve memories like nothing else. Our readers recommend these photographers for portraits and special events.

Born in Moscow into a family with a tradition in visual arts, Andrei Riskin began his career in 2000, working in “a photographic form that is neither classic wedding portraiture nor photojournalism, but a sophisticated extension of both,” according to his website. The result, the San Francisco photographer says, is “a photo essay (or rather a poem).” Riskin also does documentary projects and teaches at the Harvey Milk Photo Center and Academy of Art University in San Francisco. His website gallery features candid photos along with more formal photography at weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs.

Based in San Francisco, Larry Rosenberg has 40 years of experience in photography, specializing in weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs and portraits. He studied photography at the Art Institute of Boston and has exhibited his work at Rayko Photo Center, the JCC of San Francisco and the Contemporary Jewish Museum. The gallery on his website includes formal, winsome, pensive and jovial photos, capturing priceless moments at a variety of events. “Most people have said I’m easy to work with,” says Rosenberg. “I like to blend into the background. I’m there to record the event, not to create the event. It’s not about me. It’s about your event.”

Richard Mayer, who has been serving Jewish community clients for 25 years, specializes in event photography as well as portraiture. “In the film days, the almighty negative ruled,” Mayer says. “Now I can include for the client a set of the digital files so they can have access to their family photos without added cost. I have many album styles to choose from that enhance the photos and protect them for years to come.” Based in Foster City, he serves clients throughout the region and has been recommended by event planners and hotels. He says clients have told him he “doesn’t take photos, he crafts them.” He has taught seminars to professional photographers and teaches photography workshops for the National Park Service at Alcatraz. His work has been exhibited at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, the SFJazz Center and Rayko Photo Center.

Berkeley photographer Shoey Sindel calls herself “a storyteller of people’s lives, using photos to tell the tale.” She specializes in family portraits and celebrations, including b’nai mitzvah, weddings, brit milah and special events. “I am most proud of capturing people’s authentic selves and the love and emotion between them,” says Sindel, who has been in business for nine years, the last three in her own studio. “When people are relaxed in front of my camera, they stop being self-conscious and their true selves emerge; that’s when the magic happens. I know I have done a great job when my clients cry with joy when they see their photos.”

Based in San Anselmo, Abigayle Tarsches is a fine-arts photographer whose work, which includes fashion shoots, movie stills and portraiture, has appeared in books, magazines, galleries and museums. She prints black-and-white photos by hand, the old-fashioned way, in a darkroom, according to her website. She also enjoys wedding and special event photography, “capturing the moment between the moments,” she writes. A bride who hired Tarsches writes on Yelp: “Abby has a skill for capturing beauty in the moment, I love each and every photo she took.”

San Francisco

Andrei Riskin Photography

(415) 254-7851

Larry Rosenberg Photography

 (415) 920-1907


East Bay

Shoey Sindel Photography


(510) 917-0659


South Bay/Peninsula

Richard Mayer Photography

Foster City

(650) 465-3673


North Bay

Abigayle Tarsches Photography

San Anselmo

(415) 609-7914


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