Situated on a prime spot of marina property, Café Del Rey is a long-stranding favorite for Marina del Rey locals and newcomers alike. With its casually elegant interior, fresh seafood and delicious takes on classic dishes, it is well worth a trip. Watch the sun set as you try a catch-of-the-day and listen to classic piano tunes playing in the background.
As soon as I walk in, I am greeted by the loud, bustling noises of a popular local spot. The patrons are a diverse group of people, though they all seem to be locals. This is a sophisticated place to eat – everything is casual and yet classy.
To the left of the entrance is the wine room, filled with hundreds of wine bottles on display. To the right is the bar and lounge area. Songs like "Put on a Happy Face" waft through the whole restaurant as a piano player entertains guests. There is seating at the bar, but there are also quite a few cushioned booths and hardwood chairs and tables. Everything is cozy and packed closely together in front of a roaring fireplace, enhancing the community atmosphere the restaurant exudes. Long, red cylindrical lanterns hang from the ceiling and little sphere geode candleholders on each table glow from the votives inside. The bar itself is huge and well-stocked. The setting sun's light shines through the rainbow of liquor bottles in a way that entices me to order a martini or glass of white wine and linger with the other bar and lounge patrons.
Instead I am quickly seated in the main dining area, straight down a short hallway from the entrance. I am treated to a gorgeous view of the marina, though I realize that no matter where one is seated, there is a similarly fabulous view of the busy boat life through the huge plate-glass windows. While in the evening most of the boats are docked, there is still some activity. Mixed with the palm trees and vibrant bougainvillea bushes, the view is calming and vivid at the same time.
The main dining area tastefully mixes together modern and retro design elements, along with a lovely spectrum of autumnal, Tuscan colors. The polished light and dark brown woods mix with the oranges of the dishes and curtains dividing some of the booths. The curves of the furniture, glasses, and chairs contrast with the squares and sharp lines of the dishes and silverware. Round water tumblers are a polka-dotted 1970s tangerine orange, while plates are square and either white or a similar citrus hue. The cork menus are quirky and reminiscent of days gone by.
White linen tablecloths and napkins fancy the room up, as do the single orchids placed delicately in square glass vases filled with black stones on each table. Small lights hang on wires overhead, seeming to climb across the ceiling. The lighting is low-key and romantic, though it does get rather dark when the sun goes down.
There is also a private room available, divided from the main dining area by windows of misty glass, allowing for privacy while also creating a bit of a greenhouse aura. The restaurant's large windows continue into the private room, joining skylights and a handful of large ceiling fans. A party of up to 56 can easily be seated here.
The wine selection is diverse, with an assortment of California wines and an extensive listing from South Africa, Argentina, New Zealand and Germany. Wines are available by the bottle or the glass. Specialty cocktails are offered, including many martini options. One can try a Key Lime or a Zen (Grey Goose vodka and green tea). I choose the Blue Rey, a cool, crisp, purplish-blue concoction of Stoli blueberry vodka, blue curacao and pomegranate juice with a sugar rim.
Executive Chef Jason Niederkorn is the former corporate chef for the Domaine restaurants, and he and his staff definitely know what they are doing. The presentation of each of the courses is amazing, even down to the pats of butter that come with the introductory basket of bread. Each rectangle is placed diagonally on a square plate, playing with the aforementioned sharp edges and lines. The country bread provided is hearty and fresh.
To start off, I order the Agnolotti of White Corn. The envelope pasta is hand-rolled by the chef daily and is filled with a puree of corn, Parmesan Reggiano, brown butter, and mascarpone. The six pieces of agnolotti are served diagonally on a rectangular serving dish and sprinkled with parmesan and chives. The pasta is soft and fresh, and the filling is sweet, tangy and cheesy, with the flavors of the cheeses mixing together into a masterful taste experience.
The Caesar salad's hearts of romaine are crisp and moist, and coated in a light Caesar dressing. I can taste slight notes of fresh garlic, Worcestershire sauce and black pepper. Powdered Parmesan Reggiano is sprinkled on top and croutons are placed along the side. Tangy and light, the salad is a cool and refreshing beginning to a meal full of strong flavors.
The presentation the Black Spaghetti entrée can only be described as breathtaking. The ingredients are arranged in a starburst kaleidoscope display. The black spaghetti is mixed with red, orange and peach hues – lobster, shrimp, calamari and bay scallops are mixed with peppers and enoki mushrooms, centered around a burst of white alfalfa sprouts. Everything is mixed with a fabulously spicy garlic soy sauce with strong tomato bisque undertones.
Soft and steamy fingerling potatoes border the left side of the Filet Mignon, and dainty, juicy, and crisp baby carrots and spring onions border the left. The steak seems all the more diminutive on the large plate that it is served on, but it packs a strong flavor. Grilled to your liking, mine is well done and doused in a red wine sauce. The sauce tastes like it has elements of a traditional, peppery Worcestershire sauce, but the red wine adds its own little kick. The flavors of the sauce and marinade burst out with every bite of the already juicy meat.
"Flowering teas" are offered at the end of the meal along with espresso, cappuccino and the like. Pastry Chef Esti Rothstein has created an endlessly creative dessert menu, but for me the highlight is definitely the "Vintage and Vogue S'mores," a wonderfully modern twist on an old classic. Served on sticks, two traditional bite-sized s'mores are placed at one end of the dish. At the other end, a thin graham cracker base is topped with chocolate mousse, a pillow of marshmallow and mascarpone fluff, and finally a chocolate drizzle. Both options are dangerous to eat but are delightfully smeary and delicious. It is hard to choose a favorite of the two – the first makes me feel as if I am at a posh camp-out; the other makes me feel as if I am being wickedly indulgent. The marshmallow elements of both make me feel as if I am eating clouds.
Two half-spheres of chocolate are served with the check and are a decadent substitute for the traditional peppermint candies usually offered.
Formerly the Fiasco restaurant, Café Del Rey has been open for seventeen years and is owned by Tavistock Restaurants, a chain that owns nineteen other upscale, casual dining establishments throughout the country (including Napa Valley Grille and Alcatraz Brewing Company). Besides the incredible food, I am treated to efficient, thoughtful service. Matt, our waiter, is friendly and full of recommendations, advice and information. Even during a week night General Manager Michael Morrisette (formerly of Melisse and Maple Drive) circulates the dining area, mingling with patrons. The overall Café Del Rey experience is enchanting, and I hope to repeat it again soon.