From creating outdoor dining venues in parking lots to elevated take-away meals, the restaurants and chefs of Pasadena have pivoted, evolved, and persevered. Here, we delve into how some of the region’s most established purveyors have sustained, while also profiling a handful of next-generation chefs who are carving their own way in the midst of a pandemic.
Owned by the Drago family, Celestino Ristorante has been a fixture on Lake Avenue for over a quarter of a century, and Calogero Drago is still at the helm. “We are going with the flow,” he says. “Whatever the city says, we have to do it, but we are going to be positive, patient, and disciplined.” The restaurant had never offered take-out but created a new family-friendly menu with a few old favorites that travel well: mushroom truffle balls with fontina cheese fondue; chopped salad with grilled shrimp; baked pasta dishes; and osso buco with risotto to warm up in under a minute at home.
Brothers John and Chris Bicos own historical spots such as Magnolia House and Gus’s BBQ, to name a few. Growing up in San Marino, their father opened one of the area’s oldest diners dating back to 1962, The Original Tops in Alhambra. Tops is still popular among locals with drive-through contactless service, a lower price point, and comfort food from a pastrami sandwich to chili-cheese fries all made from scratch. Gus’s BBQ, meanwhile, celebrates the best regional styles from all over the country and has pivoted to offer targeted family meals now that people are celebrating differently with small groups at home, and Magnolia House has added a custom parklet for additional outdoor seating. “Pasadena has a great balance of small community and business opportunity,” says Chris. “You know your neighbors and people are really willing to step up to help businesses. We also have a direct line to our city council and decision-makers, which feels rewarding at a time when things are not so positive.”
Nearby Twohey’s is a family-owned institution that has been around since 1943, originally on Arroyo Parkway. The American diner has recently come full circle and relocated to Fair Oaks in South Pasadena from Alhambra. Famous for fudge sundaes, onion rings, the Little Stink-o burger, and roast turkey dinners with all the sides, new additions include an old-school soda fountain counter, private room, bar area, and plenty of outdoor dining space. They even brought back the old-school car hop that can be delivered on a tray—or you can tailgate with a Spotify playlist from the ‘50s and ‘60s specially created for these trunk outings. “We wanted to keep the original loyal customers but bring them into the next century,” says co-owner Tanya Christos, whose family, the Mallises, bought the business in 1996. “After 87 years, we wanted to make sure that the Twohey’s tradition doesn’t die off.”
Offering 388 teas from around the world, Chado Tea Room has been a local fixture in Old Town for 20 years. “Pasadena has a mixed culture with ethnicity and loyal customers who support us and understand the complexity of tea and healthy conscious benefits,” says co-CEO Tek Mehreteab. In addition, 90% of teas are very sustainable, depending on the region. Top sellers include the white Champagne raspberry, Mauritius black tea with vanilla beans, and rare “mystery” blends from China that can run up to $250 an ounce. The shop now offers virtual tea tastings and pairings with chocolate and cheese. You can also create your own blends and take a DIY afternoon picnic basket to go.
Domenico’s, a third-generation operation that has been family owned since the 1960s, took a break in the early part of 2021 but has reopened on Washington Blvd. and continues to serve the beloved veal patty, lasagna, and fatty pizza sandwiches from the original Rosa family recipes.
As for Roma Market’s 81-year-old co-owner Rosario Mazzeo, he is still working seven days a week as he’s done since 1950. The local institution on North Lake Blvd. has actually been busier during the pandemic, selling pasta for customers to cook at home and making several hundred of their famous deli sandwiches per day. “In my life, I never take a day off,” says Mazzeo. “I love what I do.”
As longstanding fixtures on the Pasadena dining scene, the Smith Brothers have also kept their trio of modern American comfort cuisine restaurants, which includes Smitty’s Grill, Parkway Grill, and Arroyo Chop House, open seven days a week for take-out and delivery. They also recently added a gourmet grocery delivery service with primes steaks and wines.
Occupying four storefront spaces in San Marino for 35-years, a visit to Julienne is as close to a European trip that we can hope for this spring. The formerly frenetic foray leads to a well-orchestrated four-person at a time walk-thru from the coffee bar to the shop; wine and food cases where locals stock up on pantry staples, casseroles, stews; and the “magic healing get-well chicken-veggie soup.” “Everyone has been resilient, and people feel safe here,” says owner Julie Campoy. “The physical layout lends itself to easy in and out, and we already had the gourmet market, so a lot of things worked in our favor even during a pandemic.” But it has not all been smooth sailing, “We have been forced to reimagine and really bring down our menu to the basics and rethink the back of house,” adds Campoy. “But we are not on a sinking ship. We are floating adrift in the middle of the ocean but can see the horizon.”
The next wave of restaurant trends might not be happening in the restaurant at all.
When the pandemic closed down many brick-and-mortar restaurants, it was a good reason for people to start home-based professional cooking operations, but a few of the most successful concepts were actually hatched before the challenges of 2020. Eating well in 2021 might consist of cyber-stalking your favorite food-finds on Instagram and sending a DM to the owners for an order.
Well-known French chef Laurent Quenioux bid adieu to his brick-and-mortar French restaurants, including Vertical Wine Bistro and Bistro LQ in Pasadena, more than a decade ago. After working from his Highland Park home offering pairing menus and an epic cheese cart, the talented toque is now recreating his beloved cassoulet menu, foie gras in jars, homemade charcuterie, and other specialties to go, with pickup in Echo Park and delivery available in Pasadena and the San Gabriel Valley.
Knowreality Pie (knowrealitypie.com) in Eagle Rock started out in 2014 as an artisan gourmet home baking business by Tracy Ann DeVore selling her unique KCRW award–winning favorites from Triple Berry Cabernet, Cherry Zin, Key Lime, and Sea Salt Caramel Chess. The flavors have since evolved to Oaxacan Mole Maria and Espresso chocolate pecan before she expanded to a storefront space on Townsend Ave. DeVore still bakes all the pies at home, with a full commercial kitchen. “Several are my mom’s recipes with tweaks. An unprofessional but great baker as I grew up. She became ill with cancer young, and my pies are my legacy to her,” she says.
Other home operations have morphed out of necessity and a great idea. A Michigan-born, San Francisco transplant, private chef Aaron Lindell has been operating Quarter Sheets (@quartersheets) Detroit-style square pizza “with a chef-driven twist” in Glendale since March of 2020. The small-scale business grew so quickly by word-of-mouth that Lindell is already looking for a commercial space on the Eastside. The classic cheese “red top” pepperoni is the most sought after and usually sells out within five minutes when the menu goes up on Instagram. “Not sure how long I can keep turning people away and they will keep coming back,” he says.
Villas Tacos (@villastacoslosangeles) has taken the weekend street scene by storm off York Blvd. in Highland Park. Victor Villa worked at Faith & Flower downtown until the pandemic hit. He quickly enlisted his family for the neighborhood venture, which features grilled blue-corn masa tortillas for potato and chorizo tacos, quesadillas, and an array of salsas served out of his grandmother’s backyard, now known among locals as “the white house.”
In a residential area of La Cañada-Flintridge, Lord Maynard Llera (@kuyalord_la), a former sous chef at Bestia, runs a Filipino pop-up out of his home where he whips up a variety of family-style noodles, deep-fried pork belly, and BBQ chicken. Llera started this concept serving friends out of his apartment in Glendale and quickly moved to a larger venue last May.
For the most unique presentation of all, Calabama (@calabama) by Alabama transplant Cara Haltiwanger lures foodies to her East Hollywood historic apartment building fire escape, where she lowers southern-style breakfast sandwiches and her signature hot sauce from the top floor in a red bucket tied with a rope. As the old saying goes, necessity is truly the mother of invention.