In the midst of looking in on their restaurant-in-the-making at Del Mar Highlands Town Center, Mario Del Pero and Ellen Chen take pause among the clamor of drills and hammers to consider the happily circuitous path that dates back to the day more than 15 years ago when Mario proposed to Ellen atop the bluffs of Dog Beach in Del Mar.
The serendipity isn’t lost on the husband-and-wife team as they talk excitedly about returning to the Del Mar area to open the latest—and biggest—location of Mendocino Farms, their refined-but-casual eatery known for an uncompromising devotion to sandwiches and salads made exclusively from seasonal, carefully-chosen ingredients.
Their venture now boasts 15 locations, mostly in and around Los Angeles. The opening of their 16th location has already given them the chance to reconnect with the many families they knew when Chen, a UCSD grad, lived in Del Mar. No coincidence, then, that they’re pulling out all the stops in transforming the 4,000-square-foot space that was formerly Carnitas’ Snack Shack and the Nekter Juice Bar that had been next door.
When it opens at the end of this month, the new outpost will try to build on the popularity of the La Jolla location they opened eight months ago, the first of five that they hope to bring to the San Diego area.
Crafted by architects Bluemotif and interior designers Vanrooy (another husband-and-wife team), the space will feature a “coastal bohemian” blend of indoor and outdoor spaces, defined by flourishes that include a living wall more than 30 feet tall, a “secret garden” and art installation for children to cavort and create, Moroccan tile rugs, a communal table, an outdoor fireplace, even a cornhole court.
“Our passion is to give people that same experience you want from a full-service restaurant — quality of food, quality of environment — yet we can break a ton of rules the full-service restaurants can’t,” Del Pero said over the commotion of workmen hammering and drilling and sawing away at the herringbone wood, scarcely any drywall in sight. “We want to be a gathering place. Go ahead and let your kids run around. Go ahead and stay at this table for three hours. Don’t even spend. If you want to just meet people, come on over here and hang out. We want this to be a place that parents know they can come with their kids but still have upscale food in an upscale environment. We’re not just saying it; we’re backing it up with square footage.”
But for all the doting over decor and design, Mendocino Farms has made its name on the food. Its produce is delivered daily from Jeff Stein’s Scarborough Farms in Oxnard. They smoke their own meats at their central kitchen. The only chicken they’ll serve comes from Mary’s Organic Chicken in San Joaquin Valley. On tap, they’ll feature four wines and eight beers, seven of which will be local. Craving artisanal soft serve? They’ve got that, too, from Sweet Rose Creamery in L.A.
“Health is so important down here, people really care about the ingredients they put into their bodies,” Chen says. “It’s a really great way to eat, so I think there’s just a great alignment.”
Adds her husband: “For us it’s not how many can we open, it’s what special places can we take this?” Del Pero says. “This has been one of the special places we’ve been looking at since I proposed to her. This would likely be the neighborhood we would live in if we didn’t live where we do, so it’s really exciting for us to be able to share this particular store with a neighborhood that we think so highly of. That’s why probably we put so much into it. This is by far our most expensive build out. This is for Del Mar, it’s our gift to the neighborhood.”
Location: 12873, El Camino Real, San Diego, 92130. Visit mendocinofarms.com/del-mar