Little Moon, Big Orbit

Raphael Lunetta is a Santa Monica native who grew up surfing. It’s still his passion—that is, when he can find time to get out on the waves. These days he’s busy running his popular eponymously-named upscale restaurant, Lunetta, and its casual next-door diner, Lunetta All Day.

To give you an idea of his schedule, last Saturday Raphael did a cooking demo in the morning at Santa Monica Farmers Market, came back to his restaurant for an hour during lunch, rushed to a fundraiser at St. Monica’s in the afternoon, then returned to the restaurant for dinner. And the next morning after setting up his kitchen, he was heading out to do another fundraiser for Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District.

Lunetta and Lunetta All Day are big hits with neighborhood locals, fans of his previous restaurant JiRaffe, as well savvy foodies who regularly pack the place to experience the fresh, simple, seasonal ingredients that star on his menus.

In Italian, Lunetta means “Little Moon,” and as Executive Chef/Partner Raphael orbits the dining room, greeting each of the guests personally, making sure everyone feels at home. His charm is authentic, warm and high energy; he’s enthusiastic and articulate. No wonder he’s been such a frequent guest on many national TV food shows, including “Top Chef.”

Occupying the former Maryland Crab House on Pico at 25th, which morphed into Josie LeBalch’s self-titled restaurant Josie, the “formal” and “informal” dining rooms at Lunetta share a kitchen, an unusual arrangement but one that works like a well-oiled machine under the leadership of this highly experienced restaurateur.

Cooking was a big part of Raphael’s family life, with summers in the South of France at his aunt’s 18th-century farmhouse; family dinners were cooked over open fires with fish caught fresh from the ocean and vegetables picked from the garden. These influences continue in his restaurants today, from the choice of ingredients to the wood-fired grill.

Working his way through kitchens around the world while surfing professionally, and after training in some of the leading restaurants in Paris, he came up through a few of L.A.’s most pioneering and adventurous kitchens (remember Broadway Deli?). When he and Josiah Citrin (Mélisse, Charcoal) opened JiRaffe in 1997, it quickly became one of the area’s most acclaimed restaurants and remained so until it closed almost 20 years later.

At Lunetta, you enter through the back door. Lunetta All Day has a lovely and inviting patio, perfect for summer evening happy hours or an impressive first date. To get to the “formal” dining room at Lunetta, you first pass through a cozy, clubhouse-style space with a fireplace, tables, plush armchairs and a beautifully decked out bar.

In the dining room, you’ll notice the absence of tablecloths (there are cloth napkins!); that’s deliberate. Raphael wanted to create a comfortable room where the dishes would be the focus of attention, great food without the stuffiness. Clean lines, an open kitchen with a counter to watch all the action; and if you’re lucky enough to arrive when the sun is still out, Raphael opened up the formerly darkened front window to let the evening light cast its glow.

Although I’m not an octopus eater, it’s a dish the chef is especially proud of. While my dining guest Liz and I enjoyed the two starters we ordered—roasted pear salad with hazelnuts, greens and sherry walnut vinaigrette, and the ahi tuna tartare (which is amazing)—our waiter Kevin insisted on bringing us the Wood-Fired Spanish octopus. We’re glad he did and yes, I ate and enjoyed it!

We also asked Kevin to recommend our wines: I was persuaded to try the Domaine Francois LeClerc Pinot Noir from Burgundy and found myself drinking two glasses (by the way, they pour well, no skimping here!).

I chose the Wood-Grilled BBQ Salmon entrée (loved the smashed fingerlings), while my friend Liz took the chef’s recommendation and ordered the Loup de Mer, a butterflied branzino, wood-grilled with a blend of spices Raphael has specially made for him, reminiscent of a dish he tried in Indonesia, 25-30 years ago. This is a plate easily big enough for two.

Don’t skip desserts: they’re all worthy—the staff favorite, Sticky Toffee Pudding with ice cream (swoon), the Chocolate Bourbon Truffle Cake (OMG) and the affogato, with espresso coffee, pistachio ice cream, and lemon pistachio biscotti (it’s a great “pick me up”).

But the bonus prize has to be Raphael’s wonderfully rich, thick and delicious chocolate triple berry bread pudding, which each of us got a slice of to go home with. I had it for breakfast the next day; it kept me full past noon.

Clean, simple, seasonally fresh, and local as possible—these ingredients for success result in a dining room that’s filled, hopping and happy by 7 p.m. May it ever be so.

Lunetta and Lunetta All Day has it all: fine dining in a comfortable atmosphere, a casual diner where you can order breakfast or lunch all day, free parking, friendly service, all in a neighborhood setting. Who could ask for more?