Back to the table: Top 10 new South Bay restaurants in 2021

Esperanza Sabor de tres mariscos. Photo by JP Cordero

by Richard Foss

At the outset of 2021 I wasn’t expecting improvement in the local dining scene. Openings in 2020 had been better than expected, but those projects were already in the pipeline, and one might expect few new ones to be planned. Surely investors would be cautious due to the ban on indoor dining, staffing problems, and all the other COVID-19 problems. 

I was very wrong. Over 50 restaurants opened in our area, and deciding which to feature as the top 10 was very difficult.

As always there were some judgment calls. Dash Dashi opened so late in the year that I moved them into 2022. I would have included Little French Bakery in my list of best eateries based on their excellent sandwiches and snacks, but give them an honorable mention because the menu is limited, and those are a small part of their operation. El Goloso on Pacific Coast Highway earned an honorable mention, too, because their food is excellent and modestly priced, but they didn’t bring any particular innovation to the area, and all the winners did. I also took value for money into account, which edged out some places that offered very good experiences, but at prices much higher than comparable experiences at already existing places.

I’ve listed these in various orders in previous years, alphabetical, high to low, et cetera. This year I’ll go from north to south. The dollar signs are for inexpensive, moderate, and high end. There are worthy places in each price range.

Nomad Eatery Chef-Owner Scott Cooper with General Manager Elysia Lemberis. Photo by Richard Foss

Nomad Eatery, El Segundo 

Chef Scott Cooper has run several restaurants in the South Bay over the last three decades. Nomad Eatery is by far his most successful. The menu is based on ideas he gathered while traveling in Europe, Southeast Asia, and Latin America, and Cooper adds a personal signature to all items on this diverse menu. The indoor-outdoor environment of the restaurant is serene, the cocktails are inventive, and the prices are modest for the quality. The vacancies in office buildings on Rosecrans have put all restaurants there in peril, but Nomad Eatery has the culinary chops to draw local support. 

$-$$. 2041 Rosecrans #190. Nomadeatery.com.

Un Cafe Altamura owner Gina Altamura. Photo by JP Cordero

Un Caffe Altamura, Manhattan Beach

The odd little space next door to the Kettle on Highland Avenue has been home to some odd concepts, but a sense of purpose is evident with the current tenant, despite an unintended shift in style. Un Caffe Altamura was conceived as a wine bar, but hasn’t received its license yet. Nevertheless, the place has attracted a loyal following before the first glass has been poured. It is currently open for breakfast and lunch, and does a stellar job with both, using premium ingredients. Owner Alexa Altamura is from a family prominent in the real estate business, but her sense of culinary aesthetics is highly developed. The interior is small but airy and pleasant, and will soon be remodeled to add the wine bar, and then will be open in the evenings serving Italian pastas and desserts. If they’re as good as the current offerings, I predict further success. 

$$. 1140 Highland Ave. No website.

Esperanza’s VP of operations Jordan Cressman and owner Greg Newman. Photo by JP Cordero

Esperanza, Manhattan Beach

The exterior at Esperanza was startling when it was first unveiled, and a year later it is still turning heads. The interior has a blend of mid-century and contemporary elements, and might lead you to expect an avant-garde menu without roots in place or culture. Instead, the food has Mexican roots, but very modern ideas about showcasing the flavors of meats, vegetables, and seafood. Sauces are brightly flavored with balanced herbs, vinegars, and heat. They make you taste familiar items in new ways. The price range is wide – there are classic Mexican combos for under twenty bucks, but also memorable steaks and lobster items that run double or triple that. The cocktails are superb, the environment busy, and loud but not excessive, and service has been excellent on multiple visits. Esperanza has been packed since the day it opened, and it has earned that crowd one meal at a time. 

$-$$$. 309 Manhattan Beach Blvd. Esperanzamb.com.   

Pa-do chef Al Kim. Photo by JP Cordero

Pa-Do, Manhattan Beach

I hesitated over awarding Pa-Do this year or pushing them to next year’s roundup, because they had been open just over the month that is my minimum, and are still serving from an abbreviated menu. I decided they deserve the nod because the food, beverages, and service are already as steady as restaurants that have been open much longer. Chef-owner Al Kim has been cooking at the private 900 Club for years and opened this restaurant to serve Asian fusion items centered on noodles and stuffed dumplings. The dough in each has the springy quality that you only get with very fresh pasta, and they’re offered in both traditional and modern styles. The soup broths have intense flavors in both vegetarian and meat versions, sometimes accented by judicious use of chillies – with the exception of the “habanero spice bomb,” subtlety rather than heat is the point. I can hardly wait to see what they do when they’re serving their whole menu, but they’re noteworthy already. 

$$. 1017 Manhattan Ave.

Fox & Farrow owners Darren and Seth Weiss with managing partner Kieran Harrington. Photo by JP Cordero

Fox & Farrow, Hermosa Beach

In all the time that he was cooking at Darren’s in Manhattan Beach, chef Darren Weiss never showed any hint that he appreciated British food. Whether this was his personal secret all along or he developed a taste for it after joining his brother Seth Weiss to create Fox & Farrow, he knows how to make this underrated cuisine shine. The former Chelsea has been decorated to be reminiscent of a British manor’s drawing room. The food includes hunter’s pie, ginger-glazed pork, and pheasant sausage. Because this is Darren, these are all made with a Californian sense of flavor, the vegetables and seasonings a bit more prominent in the mix. The brussels sprout leaves dusted with curry powder are an addictive snack that merges these sensibilities, and if you’re not feeling anglophile when you visit you can try some of the favorites from Darren’s previous enterprises. Fox & Farrow is an unlikely success, a fusion you don’t know you want until you try it. 

$$. 1332 Hermosa Ave., upstairs. Foxandfarrow.com. 

Vista owner Justin Safier and executive chef Drew Adams. Photos by JP Cordero

Vista, Hermosa Beach

Whoever decided to turn chef Drew Adams loose at Vista made a brave decision. Anyone expecting a chowder house or similar tourist-focused place in the former Mermaid was probably shocked. The South Pacific/tiki fusion here is one of a kind, the flavor combinations based on citrus, sweetness, and spice accenting unusual combinations of vegetables, fruit, and proteins. There are elements of Chinese, Malaysian, and Vietnamese food here, but also Mexican and contemporary American, and somehow it all comes together. There is room for improvement in the interior environment, which is rather sterile and noisy, but they’re working on this and outdoor tables are available with an unmatched beach view. 

$$$. 11 Pier Avenue. Vista-hb.com.

“I’ve been perfecting these recipes for 20 years,” said Pura Vita chef and partner Tara Ponzone. “I grew up in an Italian household, and we cooked classic dishes and family recipes every day. When I told my parents that I was a vegetarian they were happy to help me adapt recipes for my taste.” Photo by JP Cordero

Pura Vita, Redondo Beach

This is more than just the restaurant for a vegan date night. It’s a destination for anybody who appreciates fine Italian food and wants to see what happens when a master makes it with no animal products. Chef-owner Tara Punzone honed her skills at her restaurant of the same name in West Hollywood, and she was ready from day one with an exciting and innovative menu. The pizzas use a vegetarian mozzarella that is as satisfying as the classic. The ricotta served with bread fresh from the oven was better than the usual. Some items are different from Italian village originals that depend on seafood or meat richness, but just about everything succeeds on its own merits. Fine wines and well-informed servers complete the picture at this remarkable, and successful spot. 

$$$. 320 S. Catalina. Puravitalosangeles.com.

Tigre’s Fuego chef and co-owner Jimmy Tapia with a freshly carved carne asada taco and a fish taco. Photo by Kevin Cody

Tigre’s Fuego, Redondo Beach

I knew during the pandemic Baran’s 2239 had done a good business in breakfast burritos, but I was caught off guard when they announced they were opening a taqueria in a former Marie Callender’s take-out. The space was tiny, the menu short, and it seemed like a weird idea. Fast forward six months, and the tables outside are almost always occupied, the to-go orders zipping out at high speed. Customers are there for spicy, citrusy ceviche made with top quality fish, turkey carnitas crisped in hot duck fat, real al pastor like you’d get at a Mexican street stand, or the best Impossible burger tacos I’ve ever had. This is street food made to the highest standards by chef Jimmy Tapia, who used to have a taco cart in Venice. That beach’s loss is our gain, because we’ve got the cool tacos now. 

$. 1223 PCH. Tigresfuego.com.

Copper Pot Indian Grill & Cafe Executive Chef Taj and owner Judie Alphonse. Photo courtesy of Copper Pot

Copper Pot, Redondo Beach

South Indian food isn’t well known in our area, and I’ll admit that I’d be likely to look favorably on whoever brought it to the Beach Cities. That said, Copper Pit Indian Grill exceeded my expectations in almost every way, bringing an expansive menu of food from that region to Redondo, and executing it very well. This includes items very different from the meaty kebabs and wheat breads of the north, like dosas, the delicately crisp sourdough crepes, and laksa, a seafood stew that has Southeast Asian influences. Copper Pot is a playground for those who want to learn the depth and intricacies of Indian cuisine, though they need to upgrade their menus with better descriptions to make it easier to figure out what you’re ordering. Talk with your server and trust them, order a mix of things you know, and those you’d like to try, and enjoy the ride. 

$-$$. 1511 A. Pacific Coast Hwy. Copperpotla.com.      

 

Jiayuan Dumpling House ‘s Linda Shi. Photo by JP Cordero

Dumpling House, Redondo Beach

Chinese dumplings are an up-and-coming cuisine locally, with three specialists in that style opening during the past year. Jiayuan was the first, and has the greatest fidelity to traditional cuisine. This is not a place for fancy Asian fusion, but if you want the closest thing to Chinese home cooking, this is the place to go. The small restaurant is known for fresh noodle dishes, and their xiaolongbao, the dumplings filled in rich soup. Sometimes they’re so busy there is a long wait for these handmade items. Go a little early, be patient, and give the Shi family the time to cook and serve their specialties. It’s worth the wait. 

$-$$. 1904 S. Pacific Coast Hwy. Jydumplings.com. ER   

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