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10 of the best new restaurants in southern California

10 of the best new restaurants in southern California

Nueva in Marina del ReyNueva in Marina del Rey — Photo courtesy of Wendy O’Dea

To say that 2020 was rough for the restaurant industry is an understatement. According to a California legislative committee, nearly a third of the state’s restaurants closed permanently due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But amidst the discouraging news of closures and layoffs, there were also glimmers of hope.

Despite the need to make ongoing adjustments, a number of restaurateurs forged ahead with plans to open brand new ventures. And we’re glad they did. Here are 10 new places to dine around southern California that you may have missed.

VAGA Restaurant & Bar – Encinitas

VAGA Restaurant & Bar in EncinitasVAGA Restaurant & Bar in Encinitas — Photo courtesy of VAGA Restaurant & Bar

Opened inside the brand new Alila Marea Beach Resort in March 2021, VAGA Restaurant & Bar is helmed by celebrated San Diego chef, “Top Chef” participant and James Beard Award semifinalist Claudette Zepeda. Reservations may be challenging (hotel guests are prioritized) given the attention that Zepeda and her team dedicate to preparing each intricate dish.

The globally-inspired cuisine includes yellowtail crudo with fermented pineapple, spicy black garlic sauce and cilantro, as well as scallops with roasted plantain purée, heirloom corn, macadamia nut and chili oil. All of the locally-sourced seafood dishes are exceptional, and Zepeda also incorporates responsible sourcing of ingredients throughout the beverage program, offering wines made with grapes from low intervention/biodynamic vineyards.

Ocean and sunset views from the terrace of this newly built property won’t disappoint.

La Paloma Café – Santa Barbara

La Paloma Cafe in Santa BarbaraLa Paloma Cafe in Santa Barbara — Photo courtesy of Wendy O’Dea

In November 2020, Acme Hospitality relaunched the iconic La Paloma Café at the corner of Anacapa and Ortega streets, bringing back to life a space that had been a Santa Barbara dining favorite for 117 years – 80 as the original La Paloma and another 37 as the Paradise Cafe.

After only 10 days in business, La Paloma shifted to takeout only due to the second wave of COVID-19. Undeterred, Acme used the downtime to convert an outdoor parking space to an expanded outdoor patio, positioning them for a strong comeback when onsite dining returned.

The menu is influenced by Mexican, Spanish and Native American Chumash cuisine, and the multi-tiered patio with views of a renovated weathered wall mural of a California cowboy (rumored to be Leo Carrillo) harken to days gone by.

401k Food and Wine – Venice

Dustin Hodges and Elisa Testone of 401k Food and WineDustin Hodges and Elisa Testone of 401k Food and Wine — Photo courtesy of Lauren Keskinel

Elisa Testone, co-owner of 401k Food & Wine, is adept at finding the silver lining. “Opening during the pandemic wasn’t the worst timing,” she says, “because it allowed us to have a soft opening and we didn’t have to worry about customer demand as we ramped up.”

401k (and its neighboring sister bakery Sinners & Saints) features an entirely gluten-free menu, but not what you’d expect. From focaccia and biscuits to fish ‘n’ chips and churros, Testone and partner Dustin Hodges have managed to pull off gluten-free comfort food that will take you by surprise.

Opened in September 2020, they eventually welcomed guests to dine on their quirky back patio and are now seating in the front dining room that overlooks Lincoln Boulevard.

Lucky’s Malibu – Malibu

Dining room at Lucky's MalibuDining room at Lucky’s Malibu — Photo courtesy of Alexandra DeFurio

Dining at the Malibu Country Mart is often a scene, and that’s certainly no different now that Lucky’s Malibu has taken over the space once occupied by Nobu and Mr. Chow. Opened during the height of the pandemic in December 2020 with takeout only, the restaurant was at full occupancy due to high demand as soon as the state allowed.

The steakhouse, Montesano Group’s second after their original Montecito location, is a trusted go-to spot for the local entertainment and celebrity crowd – and anyone else looking for a high-end meal, budget-be-damned. The Blueberry Patch cocktail (Stoli blueberry, house-made sweet and sour mix and a splash of orange liquor) is worth the bumper-to-bumper drive up beautiful Pacific Coast Highway.

Sevtap Winery – Santa Barbara

Art Sevtap of Sevtap WineryArt Sevtap of Sevtap Winery — Photo courtesy of Wendy O’Dea

Art Sevtap, winemaker and owner of Sevtap Winery, was in the process of opening his new Santa Barbara tasting room when California went into full shutdown mode. Knowing that sales from the tasting room and tourism would be a major source of income, Sevtap scrambled to make ends meet.

A former chef who trained with Emeril Lagasse before venturing into winemaking, he began baking and selling organic bread for delivery around the area, while awaiting approval to reopen.

“I was almost out of business by the time I opened,” Sevtap says.

Now, his business just off State Street is steadily improving, offering tasting flights ($15-$20), a selection of breads (of course) and a solid tapas menu. Wine can also be ordered online via the Sevtap website (this lover of red wine recommends the cleverly-named Sunday Kind of Love).

Nueva – Marina del Rey

Nueva in Marina del ReyNueva in Marina del Rey — Photo courtesy of Rob Stark

Opened in late summer 2020, this Mexican cantina with a mid-century modern aesthetic is one of the newest ventures from restaurateurs Jared Meisler, Dave and Patti Reiss and chef Vartan Abgaryan. With chef Mesraim Llanez in the kitchen, Nueva‘s menu takes L.A’s Mexican food scene to new levels.

Standout dishes include the crispy cauliflower with lime, jalapeno and cilantro yogurt, as well as the Mediterranean octopus tacos with cilantro salsa and pickled red onion. There’s also a vast agave collection of tequila and mezcal at the bar, including Sotol, Bacanora and Raicilla, curated by Raul Yrastorza.

Just a mile from the beach, a converted parking lot now seats 50 socially-distanced diners with views of the sunset. An iWave air filtration system was also added to filter contaminated air particles indoors.

Ysidora – San Juan Capistrano

Outdoor dining at YsidoraOutdoor dining at Ysidora — Photo courtesy of Wendy O’Dea

The main restaurant for the Inn at the Mission San Juan Capistrano, Ysidora pays homage to the matriarch of the neighboring mission, Ysidora Forster. The restaurant and hotel, a new build from the Autograph Collection, opened in September 2020, but like others, it was soon shuttered due to the pandemic.

Now reopened, an outdoor hotel lounge area has been converted to a dining space strung with lights and a space for live music. Ysidora’s Spanish-heavy menu features hot and cold tapas, including freshly-made chicharrones, Spanish olives, olive oils, wines and cocktails honoring the area’s gin and tonics.

Bob’s Well Bread – Ballard

Bob's Well Bread in BallardBob’s Well Bread in Ballard — Photo courtesy of Ali Beck

Pandemic closures hit California just as Bob Oswaks was expanding his popular Santa Barbara County bakery from Los Alamos to nearby Ballard.

“2020 was tough,” Oswaks recalls, “and when the second wave of restaurant closures hit in December, we were barely hanging on.”

But hang on they did, and since February 2021, the bakery and café has seen the return of tourists and crowds. Located in the heart of Santa Barbara’s wine region, the menu at Bob’s Well Bread – known for its artisan loaves – also offers full breakfast and lunch. Don’t overlook the delicious sweets and pastries.

Bull & Butterfly – Playa Vista

Bull & Butterfly in Playa VistaBull & Butterfly in Playa Vista — Photo courtesy of Bull & Butterfly

Built on the site once home to Hughes Aircraft (and where Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose was built), the Playa Vista neighborhood near LAX has grown into a lively and thriving community with a constantly-evolving selection of entertainment and restaurant options.

Bull & Butterfly is one of its most recent additions, opening in October 2020 then promptly closing in November. Given the challenges of the pandemic, an open-air garage door was installed and the patio space was doubled before this modern steakhouse from Alan and Heidi Jackson reopened in April.

The menu features a large selection of Santa Maria-inspired grilled meats that will appeal to steak-lovers, but don’t overlook the impressive side dishes including the cauliflower with harissa, pine nuts and golden raisins, in addition to a decadent jalapeno mac ‘n’ cheese.

Also noteworthy for pescatarians is the ahi tuna tartar with a crispy corn sope, sumac, aji amarillo, avocado and chili lime corn nuts.

LA Puglia – Santa Monica

Martina Franco pizza at LA PugliaMartina Franco pizza at LA Puglia — Photo courtesy of Wendy O’Dea

Community support has been essential in keeping businesses afloat during the pandemic, and that was certainly the case with LA Puglia, a casual Italian restaurant that opened in Santa Monica in December 2020. Because onsite dining was closed at that time, locals helped launch the business through takeout only.

“We’re so grateful for our neighbors who welcomed us and carried us through a very difficult time,” says owner Valentina Bianco, who previously owned and ran restaurants in Italy.

As the name implies, LA Puglia’s menu focuses on the cuisine of Puglia – from seafood to wood-fired pizza – with ingredients and wines sourced directly from the region. Standout pizzas include the Martina Franco, a Puglia specialty, loaded with cherry tomatoes, mozzarella, prosciutto, shaved Parmigianino Reggiano and arugula.

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