At Rustic Kitchen, Comfort Foods Make A Comeback

A family-owned gourmet restaurant within walking distance is a rare find in Los Angeles. So when Rustic Kitchen settled into Mar Vista’s residential Hilltop area in 2016, the neighborhood welcomed the cozy cafe and the perks of its included wine bar and market shop.

Rustic Kitchen serves what owners Noelle and John Fanaris call “comfort Americana” cuisine, with a multi-page menu that’s got you covered all day, from breakfast eggs to dinner drinks. While chef Noelle oversees the food, John, a lifelong wine connoisseur, is in charge of the bar.

“I’ve always felt that very few places that call themselves a wine bar actually deliver,” he said, which is why Rustic Kitchen offers 65 bottles by the glass.

On the food menu, you’ll find many childhood favorites upgraded with a homey gourmet flourish. “I cook very simply. I don’t like to overcomplicate recipes,” said Noelle. “I don’t like to put too many ingredients in things.”

Rustic Kitchen inside
photo: Foodzooka

The specialty of the house is the mac & cheese, the dish that started Noelle’s professional food career. Before running Rustic Kitchen, Noelle was a caterer who turned her macaroni and cheese recipe into a packaged product that made it to the frozen food shelves of 140 stores, including Whole Foods, Gelson’s, and Bristol Farms.

“We wanted to make something decent that you could get in the freezer section. Because anything you get in the freezer section looks really good on the picture, and it never tastes anything like that,” she said.

Noelle describes Rustic Kitchen’s mac & cheese as a drier variation that isn’t wallowing in a puddle of sauce. It’s baked twice to crispen the top while retaining a tender center. The taste is heightened with a hardy cheese foursome: gruyere, sharp cheddar, parmesan, and fontina.

“I think the combination of cheeses is what makes the difference,” she said. Another embellished version of the dish adds jalapeno and bacon, or you can cap your mac & cheese with a layer of lobster for an extra $8.

Rustic Kitchen - Mac & Cheese
photo: Foodzooka (Four Cheese Mac & Cheese)

Along the same line of nostalgic comfort foods, chicken pot pie was another classic that Noelle wanted to revive. Instead of a traditionally heavy dairy sauce, the cream filling is thinned with chicken and vegetable broth. Influenced by her Italian roots, she also adds a taste of fennel.

On the lighter side of the menu are other personal touches. The Green Goddess salad is drizzled with a homemade green dressing inspired by the Seven Seas bottled version made popular in the ’70s. The butter lettuce, green apple slices, and pistachios complete the color theme with flavorful flair.

“We want people to walk away knowing it was very fresh with good quality ingredients,” said John.

Rustic Kitchen - Green Goddess Salad - Foodzooka
photo: Foodzooka (Green Goddess Salad)

Rustic Kitchen is also known for its sliders, of which the fried green tomato sliders are a standout for vegans and vegetarians. The tomatoes are dipped in soy milk and veganaise before hitting the frying pan.

Among the meatier options, slow-cooked short ribs make it onto the breakfast, lunch and dinner menus in various forms: in panini sandwiches, on sliders, or served over blue cheese polenta. The restaurant makes at least 10 pounds a day to keep up with demand.

Rustic Kitchen short rib sliders - Foodzooka
photo: Foodzooka (Short Rib Sliders)

The couple’s son, Jordan, also cooks for Rustic Kitchen, leaning toward multicultural flavors and complex recipes. “It’s a good combination because we have a really diverse menu,” Noelle said.  Also be on the lookout for seasonal specials, like the Corned Beef Rueben for Saint Patrick’s Day and the recent Shrimp Po’ Boy and Shrimp & Grits for Mardi Gras.  

At the counter, a display case features a selection of pastries and desserts from nearby bakeries, including Rockenwagner Bakery, Hotcakes Bakes, and Jackie’s Family Bakery.

The back walls of the restaurant form a compact retail market lined with shelves of wine bottles, cheese and crackers, snacks, condiments, and even pints of ice cream. Locally made items in the shop include coffee from local roaster Groundwork, Country Archer Jerky, Laguna Salt, Heidi’s Salsa, and Cake Bams, which are desserty rice cakes covered with frosting.

“I really love supporting local businesses, so we have lots of products and drinks that are local,” John said.

Rustic Kitchen - local goods market.jpg
photo: Foodzooka

The Fanarises have in turn felt support from the local community, particularly after one Sunday morning last May, when black smoke came through the vents, forcing a brunch crowd to evacuate the restaurant. Rustic Kitchen is one of six tenants at the end of a strip of businesses that share a common attic where the fire began. Nearly 120 firefighters arrived to extinguish the flames.

“We were standing on the street, hoping and praying that the place wouldn’t burn down to the ground,” John remembered.

Rustic Kitchen was spared from the flames, but not from the smoke and the deluge of water needed to put out the fire. In such cases, it can take more than a year to recover, if ever. With the help of insurance coverage, John and Noelle rebuilt the restaurant to look exactly the same and resumed business four months later in September.

After a few months of getting the word out that they reopened, Rustic Kitchen’s dining area, outdoor patio and bar are bustling again with regulars and new customers, who also come for the monthly wine tasting events.

“Now I feel like we’ve finally turned a corner,” John said.

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Rustic Kitchen outside
photo: Foodzooka