When Elina O’Lague first opened Solidarity in 1972, she was so busy with both a new restaurant and a newborn that she breastfed her daughter while waiting on customers.
Only then the restaurant wasn’t Solidarity, it was Warszawa. And it wasn’t located in Santa Monica, but Berkeley. And it wasn’t run by that baby girl, Natasza Congdon, now all grown up.
Congdon has taken the reigns of the now Santa Monica-based restaurant from her mother, a Polish native and self-trained chef, and is in the process of rebranding the joint, starting with a new name.
“Solidarity was a movement that overthrew the communist government in Poland,” Congdon said. “We felt like it was a great new name to show the appreciation our restaurant has for our cultural Polish roots; the food, the people and their ideas.”
O’Lague moved from Poland to Berkeley in 1968 and opened the restaurant’s first location near the famous Chez Panisse in 1972.
“Whenever I cooked something, people would say ‘You’ve gotta open a restaurant.’ So I did.” O’Lague said. “And being near Chez Panisse and other restaurants we were always fighting to find fresh herbs straight from the farm.”
After meeting Congdon’s father, the two moved to Santa Monica and O’Lague reopened her restaurant, under the same name, in 1979.
Congdon admires her mother, who has lived a “true immigrant story,” and who she is proud to be taking over for. But Congdon is not a chef, nor was she a restaurateur before embarking on this endeavor. Congdon’s previous experience is in the tech world of Silicon Valley.
“Before I came back [to Santa Monica] I didn’t know my hometown was the hottest place for start-ups,” Congdon said. “But it is actually great because I wanted to find a way to make the restaurant a place for people to come together with new ideas and work on new projects together. I want people in here starting businesses. The best and the brightest minds from Silicon Beach are in here all the time.”
Congdon said that what the world doesn’t need is another dating app, but to start solving problems with technology and she is focused on helping people solve those problems. But Congdon also wants to give a voice to the people who have been in Santa Monica the longest, never forgetting that they, like her mother, have been the backbone of the business community.
With as tech-savvy as Congdon is she immediately got to work at revamping the way the restaurant functions on a day to day basis.
“We were still hand writing our tickets,” Congdon said. “My approach has changed things. We have an online reservation system now. We have a Facebook presence. I’ve brought everything over that I learned working in the tech industry.”
Congdon said she is always thinking about how to repurpose existing resources, and one repurposed resource that isn’t tech related is the “secret bar” that customers can access by simply walking straight past the host stand and into a back room that used to be a kitchen.
“This bar is meant to be a fun, relaxing, ‘secret’ space our guests can access if they know where to look.”
But above all else, Congdon will not let you forget about the heart of the restaurant: the food. Congdon insists her mother’s creations are better than the dishes you will find in Poland itself.
As for the rebranding process, Congdon said it is still a work in progress. “Innovation takes time.”