Downtown Long Beach dining is becoming increasingly diverse, as a mix of new restaurants and tried-and-true favorites draws in visitors and attracts new residents. Venues ranging from tablecloth restaurants to small cafes and casual eateries offer cuisine from every continent and cater to an eclectic palette, from classic Italian pasta to perfectly seared scallops.
With its sweeping view of the water, Parkers’ Lighthouse in the Shoreline Village area of Downtown Long Beach has long been a favored destination for visitors and Long Beach residents alike. A staple of the downtown dining scene, Parkers’ has been serving up fresh seafood and classic American fare for more than three decades. The restaurant is looking forward to its 35th anniversary in 2019.
“Overall it comes down to the quality of the service, the quality of the food, and the location is second to none,” David Maskello, general manager at Parkers’, told the Business Journal. The last year has been especially positive, he remarked, with more tourists coming in from cruise ships and conventions. “It has been a good year; we’ve seen a good influx of overall business,” Maskello said. “I think the [Long Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau] and the Chamber [of Commerce] have done a really good job of getting conventions and people into the town. I know we’ve benefited from it, I’m sure others have too.”
Terrence Antonelli, owner of another well-established dining institution in downtown, L’Opera Ristorante, also credited the convention and visitors bureau (CVB) and the convention center for the positive climate and steady influx of customers to the downtown dining scene. “They are very aggressive in the marketplace,” Antonelli, who sits on the CVB’s board of directors, told the Journal. “The convention business is a major factor in the longevity of our restaurant, and I believe the convention center’s leadership is extraordinary.”
Antonelli said his restaurant, which has been serving Italian fare on Pine Avenue for 29 years, has benefited from the increasing number of experienced business owners who have invested in downtown in recent years. “For many years, we had people who didn’t have their finances set forth or their business plan set forth, and they were floundering,” Antonelli said. “That seems to have matured to a point where we have a lot of good operators on the street and a lot of varied cuisines.”
When it comes to Italian cuisine, downtown offers a variety of options. Carl Dene, owner of Michael’s Downtown: Italian Kitchen, said he aims to serve fine-dining quality dishes in a cozy and relaxed atmosphere. The handcrafted menu and carefully picked ingredients are a reflection of food he grew up with at home, the born-and-bred New Yorker explained.
“Growing up in New York, we didn’t go to Italian restaurants, we had it at home,” Dene said. “In Italian culture, food is family.” Dene, whose family owns the critically acclaimed Michael’s on Naples Ristorante, said his establishment and the other businesses on downtown’s Promenade were trailblazers. “We wanted to get in when we did because we’d never get that opportunity again,” Dene, who opened his downtown location over five years ago, said. “Right now is the most exciting time it’s been for us down here.”
It has also been an exciting few months for Husam “Sam” Habibeh and his wife Dima Habibeh. The couple opened their restaurant, Ammatoli, at the end of July, and said they’ve had a very positive experience so far. “The response from the community was amazing,” Sam Habibeh said about their first months in downtown just north of The Promenade. “Everybody was in here.”
Like Dene, the Habibehs aimed to create a family atmosphere. “My wife is the main chef, so all of these recipes are hers,” Habibeh said about their menu, which features elements from a culturally rich Levantine area that includes Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel. “We wanted to make sure that it feels homey, like you’re sitting at home and you’re having nice and warm comfort food.” At night, the casual dining spot turns into a more traditional restaurant, with table and wine service. “We wanted an area where you had a business lunch and a nightlife, so Long Beach was the ideal location for that,” Habibeh said. “It’s attractive to those who want to live the city life.”
New residential projects have already contributed to an exceptionally good year for Utopia Good Food and Fine Art in the East Village. “It’s been a good year for us. I haven’t crunched the numbers, but it’s been actually a good year,” the restaurant’s owner, Kamran Assadi, told the Business Journal. He estimated a 10% increase in revenue at his restaurant in 2018. “The new demographic helps,” Assadi said. “Downtown is changing dramatically.” His restaurant, which offers “California cuisine” with a diverse menu that includes salads, seafood and Italian-inspired dishes, relies on a mixed customer base of residents and visitors.
“We are a neighborhood restaurant, but conventions definitely help,” Assadi said. The restaurateur said he is optimistic about the future, but the growing popularity of downtown also comes with challenges. “It gives people more choices and it makes the business a lot more competitive,” Assadi said. Additionally, he’s worried about the current lack of parking in his area. “It will become a deciding factor. Not having parking is somewhat problematic,” he said.
Parking is already a major issue for Guy DuPlantier, whose Crazy Creole Cafe serves up authentic Creole food off of Long Beach Boulevard and 9th Street. “If we had parking, this would be a goldmine,” DuPlantier said. Still, after starting his business from a lunch truck, DuPlantier said he’s grateful for the space he’s got.
“The lunch truck was difficult. That was a hard, hard road,” DuPlantier said, referring to how his business got its start. “We’re blessed to have a place.” Together with his wife Aliza, DuPlantier prepares traditional Creole dishes using ingredients he imports from his ancestral home state of Louisiana, down to the Blue Plate Mayonnaise. “I try to bring in all authentic products, if possible. We ship in live crawfish during the season,” he said. “Where can you get live crawfish delivered to your house or boiled crawfish delivered to your house, that was just swimming in a swamp two days ago?” Delivery is what has kept the Crazy Creole Cafe afloat, its owner said. “We have to fight to stay in business. It’s a battle every day.”
The Potholder Cafe Too is also facing some tough times. Temporary as it may be, massive construction going up around its West Gateway location has made it challenging for customers to access the lunch and brunch-focused cafe. “They are moving quick, but there’s just so much to do,” Kevin Pittsey, the restaurant’s owner, said. He estimated that revenues have been down 20% since the construction started.
“You close all the streets around us, you’re blocking our driveway with a tractor [and] we’re basically closed. Who’s going to make up for that?” Pittsey asked. “The bills don’t change.” Pittsey said he’d appreciate a little bit more communication from everyone involved in the construction, maybe even some consideration for his busiest hours. “Who wants to sit on our beautiful patio drinking mimosas with a jackhammer right on the sidewalk?” he asked.
Looking towards the future, Pittsey is still hopeful that once the construction is done, more people will come to the cafe to enjoy a hearty plate of country-fried steak, syrup-dripping French toast or a sparkly mimosa. “It’s going to look nice, there’s no doubt about it,” Pittsey said. “Once everything is finished and opened up, we might be up 20%.”