By Kathy Day
Jenn Powers and Greg Glassman thought about throwing a party after their restaurant, Zel’s Del Mar, had been open for a year. And they thought about it after the second year but, again, it didn’t happen.
Now, at the end of their third year at the corner of Camino Del Mar and 13th Street, they are gearing up for a celebration on Aug. 19, the couple said.
Their venture into the restaurant business has been an interesting one, said Greg, who noted they opened in the heart of the downturn and without a liquor license. Eventually they got that in a license lottery.
“As any restaurant does, we had to spend time figuring out who we were and defining ourselves,” he added.
Picking a name was the easy part. They had only to look to Greg’s grandfather, Zel Camiel, who owned one of the first liquor stores in Del Mar where Del Mar Plaza now stands. The honorary mayor of the city, he was known as a great guy and philanthropist who led the drive to raise money for Seagrove Park.
The name, Greg said, gives the place “a lot of soul” and also draws a lot of stories out of longtime Del Mar residents who visit the restaurant, with its inviting outdoor patio.
The rest of the process in finding an identity took a bit longer. Greg credits their customers for helping them do that: “We have become the locals’ place. … We’re one of the best kept secrets in Del Mar, and our customers want to keep it that way.”
But the secret of what they call their “coastal neighborhood restaurant and bar” is getting out.
Chef Alex Boswell, who trained at the San Diego Culinary Institute and worked at Massa in San Francisco and Alan Wong’s restaurant in Oahu, has stirred up a mix of California comfort foods that is bringing diners back on a regular basis. (An interesting side note is that she won the money she used for her schooling in a Foster Farms contest to find the best chicken recipe in the country.)
Boswell uses locally-grown produce, rotating the menu with the seasons, and has become known for such standbys as Brandt beef steaks and burgers, flatbread pizzas and fresh fish.
Jenn and Greg’s favorites include their Lemongrass Caesar Salad, the sliders and the Bacon Tater Tot Potsticker.
They always have vegan and vegetarian options and nightly specials such as Panko Encrusted Tofu with oyster, cremini and shitake mushrooms or Braised Short Rib Poutine as well.
When they opened, the couple lived in Mission Hills, but as they realized how much they liked being in Del Mar and with their teens heading to high school, they made the move north. Now their 15-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter are regulars on Zel’s staff.
Living in the city has made a difference in terms of being part of the community, Jenn said.
Each month they host a fundraiser for a local organization and they provide gift cards for charity auctions. In addition, with their love of music, they decided to co-sponsor the opening act of the Summer Twilight Concerts at Powerhouse Park.
Their commitment to Del Mar includes Greg’s interest and involvement in revitalizing the Village and attracting new businesses.
They’ve made changes slowly in the establishment, which was formerly home to Café Del Mar. New art playing to the surfing culture and new tables and chairs to update the look are part of the changes.
They’ve also brought live music to the Village four nights a week, with Greg handling the choice of entertainment. He’s partial to local musicians and songwriters and likes giving them a venue to show off their talents.
They’ve showcased Robin Henkel, who has played with B.B.King, and Lee Coulter, whose songs can be heard on KPRI. Coming up this week: Aug. 16, James Behrens; Aug. 17, Tim Wray; Aug. 18, The Flounders: and for the Aug. 19 anniversary party, when they’ll have happy hour prices all day, East of Echo.
Besides its music, Zel’s has become known as one of the few Del Mar restaurants serving late meals on Fridays and Saturdays “for those who are hungry at midnight,” Jenn said.
They also have happy hour from 3 to 6:30 p.m. daily and a “late” happy hour from 10-11 p.m. happy hour Monday through Thursday and from 9 to 10 p.m. Sundays.
But while they stay open on a regular basis, that “later” customer should beware that the staff follows the rules.
On one recent Saturday night, a server failed to recognize Johnny Depp, who rolled in just as they were closing, Jenn said. “I would have let him in.”
Greg, who also runs his own real estate company, said he gives all the credit to his wife, who has a background in sales and management. “She runs the place; I’m just the fix-it guy.”
He’s also passionate about craft beers, which have become part of the bar lineup along with “the best selection of bourbons around,” he said.
And the one who on a recent afternoon greeted a group of diners as they were preparing to leave and began a conversation about tequila and mescal – which just happen to be two of the ingredients in “La Vida,” a new drink they’re adding in August.
It turns out the family owns an agave farm in Tequila, Mexico. The couple had already planned to visit the home of the Mexican liquor; now they know someone there.
The conversation just showed how the Powers’ personal touch at Zel’s is making them a part of the community.
Zel’s Del Mar is located at 1247 Camino Del Mar, Del Mar; www.zelsdelmar.com; (858) 755-0076.