After almost a decade of training and working under Neal Fraser (first at Grace and then as sous chef at BLD), chef Diana Stavaridis decided to take off to Europe for six months to get the full French kitchen experience. She worked at a boulangerie and Frenchie, a teeny restaurant with a reputation for being the toughest reservation in Paris, and also spent some time in England. The foreign environments quickly shook her out of her comfort zone and got her thinking about food in new ways.
“Initially it was very daunting with the language barrier, and just the structures of the kitchen and the different ingredients and different names in French for different ingredients, so it was quite the adjustment for me,” says Stavaridis. “The work and the excitement and being in a kitchen so far away was just so beautiful and amazing, but yeah, it was an adjustment.”
However disconcerting, the language barrier afforded Stavaridis hours of solitude for some serious culinary meditation, creating the perfect incubator for her new concept, a neighborhood gastropub-ish spot in Manhattan Beach called Manhattan House—BLD co-owner Richard Drapkin is a partner. Opened for two months now, the restaurant, which is filled with cozy booths and covered in chalk art from local artists, has a daily changing menu accessible enough to turn customers into regulars while also staying true to Stavaridis’ style. There are the meaty dishes, like a house burger and lamb meatballs served with a scoop of labneh, but the chef’s love for fresh produce, renewed during her time abroad, is ever apparent.
“I spent a lot of time with vegetables everyday [while in French kitchens] and started thinking about how many different ways I could prepare them,” says Stavaridis.
Nowhere is this more apparent than with a dish she calls Carrotology, which currently consists of 11 preparations of carrots all on one plate, from roasted to carmelized to sous vide to pureed (she’s also working on a carrot vinegar). It’s one of the most popular items on the menu along with the Wild Mushroom Toast, topped with mushrooms from Shiitake Happens in Hermosa Beach, taleggio and parmesan cheeses, and a piquant house mustard. The thick slab of crusty sourdough that lets it be eaten by hand is made from a six-month-old starter by Michael Castaneda, who also bakes at Sotto.
Stavaridis’ focus on fresh, local vegetables is almost an obsession, and she’s made it a priority to grown every crop she can herself.
“It’s always been in me, and I’ve always had this dream and this fantasy of owning a restaurant—something similar to where I worked in southern England at the River Cottage, where you own a restaurant right on a farm with the garden right there,” she says.
On site, she’s growing almost all the herbs and edible flowers she uses with citrus trees in the works. She’s also partnered (through the organization GrowingGreat) with an elementary school a few blocks away, to grow carrots, corn, squash, string beans, snap peas, and more with the help of the students. She expects to be floating 25 percent of the produce used in the restaurant by September, and she also wouldn’t mind yielding a crop of new chefs in the process.
“When I was a kid, I never really looked up at anybody and saw that I had a chance to be a chef,” she says. “And some of these kids really love to cook. I think for them to see me, owning and running a restaurant right up the street and cooking the things that come [from the school garden], you know, children are so impressionistic that it has to leave a print.”
Stavaridis also hopes to leave a long-term print on the neighborhood as a whole. She says her main goal is to build a successful restaurant by feeding the people what they want, reflecting the culture, and using the best local ingredients she can grow or get her hands on.
Manhattan House, 1019 Manhattan Beach Blvd, Manhattan Beach, (310) 574-2277