Northern California tapas trailblazer César has arrived in Rancho Santa Fe. The restaurant that started 18 years ago in Berkeley is now in Del Rayo Village, serving up fresh, authentic and an ever-changing variety of Spanish tapas with wine, cocktails and spirits.
Owners Richard Mazzera and his wife Terumi Shibata-Mazzera frequently came to Rancho Santa Fe to visit close friends and spotted the Del Rayo vacancy when they were down in late fall 2015. The space had been home to Treo 3, which closed in spring 2015 after a short run.
After peering through the closed restaurant’s windows, Mazzera thought it was an opportunity they shouldn’t pass up — they gutted the space and built the new César in six months, officially opening on July 7.
“Crazy,” Mazzera said of the tight timeline which has the couple still in the process of moving down to San Diego.
In Rancho Santa Fe they have introduced themselves to the local merchants and hotel concierges, and family and friends nights have filled up the eatery. Word about them is spreading — last week’s lunch saw customers enjoying meals at tables inside and out and one customer perched at the bar was already on his third visit.
“He said he’s hooked,” Terumi said.
“It’s been a great response,” Mazzera said. “Everybody says ‘Oh I live just around the corner!’ so I’m trying to figure out just how big this corner is!”
The Rancho Santa Fe César is Mazzera’s sixth restaurant project and the couple has a long history in the business.
Terumi grew up in a “family of foodies” and Mazzera began working in restaurants at age 14, washing dishes. He worked as an apprentice to Wolfgang Puck at Ma Maison, made the switch from the kitchen to the front of the house and went on to help Ken Frank with La Toque in West Hollywood before finding his way to Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse, where he was the general manager for 12 years.
Terumi grew up in Japan and started working in five star hotels, trained in the traditional French way of serving. She came to the U.S. to work with All Nippon Airways at its San Francisco office, where for 15 years she entertained clients at all of the best restaurants — which is how she came to meet Mazzera.
The couple got married in 2007.
“He’s Italian and I’m Japanese and we served Spanish food at our wedding,” Terumi said with a smile.
Their first restaurant project together was Downtown, in downtown Berkeley. Terumi also served as the general manager at Corso, a Tuscan trattoria and did quite a lot of event planning with their restaurant Assemble in Richmond, Calif., — she is looking forward to expanding César’s off-site catering business in San Diego.
Mazzera considers César his “baby,” opening up the Berkeley original in a former dry cleaner’s store right next door to Chez Panisse.
“I had this great concept, a European café bar concept that at the time really didn’t exist. I wanted food that went with the drinks, cheese and charcuterie and tapas,” Mazzera said. “And no one knew what tapas was 20 years ago.”
His tapas represent all of the Spanish regions and their different influences and flavors. Maggie Pond, the restaurant’s first chef and now executive chef, is training San Diego’s chef, Jose Perez.
“We’ve done a thousand different tapas, we have the master file,” Mazzera said. “There are so many different styles and flavors, our menu is always changing.”
The menu changes with the season and with what can be sourced — as much as they can they source local, organic, free-range and sustainable ingredients.
As with all of his restaurants, Mazzera and his wife are heavily involved in the design and building. At the Rancho Santa Fe location, they hand-laid every stone in the new exterior and every tile in the interior bar. Mazzera even stained each of the wood table tops. They are thrilled with the outdoor patio dining space (in the Bay Area it’s often a little too cold for people to dine outside) and as the dining room of the space was too big, they converted the back into a private dining room, available for small gatherings or meetings.
Rancho Santa Fe’s menu will stick closely to the Berkeley original.
They have bocadillos (sandwiches) and montaditos (toasts) in a variety of flavor combinations such as smoked salmon and artichoke, soft chorizo with honey, roasted eggplant and peppers and jamon serrano, using thin slices of 20-month cured Spanish ham.
“We are notorious for our fried potatoes with herbs and sea salt,” Mazzera said, describing how they are fried with rosemary and sage, cut on a mandolin into haystack fries and served with a dollup of housemade alioli.
Paella is also a signature dish and the largest that they do — it is meant to be enjoyed by two to four people and includes a mix of prawns, manilla clams, mussels, chorizo and chicken in a spicy lobster broth with peas, piquillo peppers and alioli.
For dessert, the César sundae features cinnamon-orange chocolate helado made by Gaia Gelato, served in a martini glass and topped with chocolate sauce, almonds and fresh churros.
The spirit and wine list is extensive and while they do feature a lot of Spanish wines, their list includes wines from all over the world as they meet Mazzera’s requirements: good value, high quality and food-friendly.
“Because we are a Spanish restaurant, we’re able to expose people to great wines from Spain that they wouldn’t normally try,” Mazzera said, noting people are coming around to enjoy albarinos and he hopes more people won’t shy away from the sherry.
César has been crafting cocktails for 18 years and Mazzera half-jokes that the modern-day mixologist was invented by the restaurant. Expert bartenders create Andalusian Sidecars with Lustau Spanish brandy and Dulce Vidas with mescal, Herradura Silver, lime, grapefruit and firewater bitters. While he intended to bring some Berkeley César “bar chefs” down to Rancho Santa Fe to train the new crew, he found there was no need.
“We’ve found some really wonderful talent down here,” Mazzera said. “We make a really good drink.”
Mazzera said the culture of tapas in Spain is one that they don’t have in the U.S. — of people working late into the evening, going to bars and enjoying a little glass of wine and tapas, often while standing, and not eating dinner until midnight. César to him is Spain meets America, a European cafe bar that customers can make whatever they want it to be.
“For us, we want to be a place you can come in and sit anywhere and have a glass of wine and tapas, make it a meal or come in for cocktails, you can do whatever you want.,” Mazzera said. “Saturday night you want to grab a table, drink tea and read a book? You can. We stay open all day and serve the same menu all day long.”
While the Berkeley spot stays open until midnight, Cesar will experiment with Rancho Santa Fe’s kitchen staying open just until 10 p.m., with the restaurant open until 10:30 p.m. They open at 11:30 a.m.: a lunch special started this week with a choice of small salad, choice of bocadillo and a dessert of churros con chocolate for $15.
César is located at 16089 San Dieguito Road, Rancho Santa Fe, 92067. For more information, call (858) 771-1313 or visit cesartapas.com.