Diners enjoying sunset on the Fig Tree Patio. Photo credit: Sophia Moreno-Bunge

As outdoor dining reopens and local restaurants begin the road to recovery the Daily Press is highlighting one excellent eatery a week sharing its history, pandemic struggles, and signature dishes.

This week the spotlight is on Fig Tree — a recently renovated California-Latin beach cafe on a mission to bring locals back to the Venice Boardwalk.

The story behind Fig Tree

Fig Tree cafe is a neighborhood institution that was founded by the Feigenbaum family in 1978 and taken over by Jose Bunge in 2006.

The restaurant recently received a facelift under the leadership of Bunge’s son Matias who, alongside sister Sophia and best friend Dashiell, transformed the space into a beachy chic cafe replete with lush plants, groovy beats, and all-around good vibes.

“Our menu and our aesthetic is driven by a desire for a casual but thoughtful coastal dining experience,” said Matias. “We wanted guests to feel comfortable and cozy, but we wanted to color that familiarity with thoughtful details in food and design that would bring you the feeling of being off traveling in a new place.”

Matias and his partners are all globetrotters with Southern California roots and have woven their experiences into the restaurant’s music, food, drinks and decor.

The reinvented Fig Tree’s laid back yet elegant atmosphere is inspired by a family favorite cafe in the coastal Uruguayan town of Jose Ignacio.

The revitalized food and drink menu was developed by Dashiell Nathanson and draws on his experiences traveling and working in China, Europe, and South America. It features healthy California twists on traditional Latin dishes alongside a funky cocktail list and range of Pacific Coast natural wines.

Both Matias and Sophia spent their high school summers working at the restaurant and are committed to keeping family and community and the center of the business.

“My father has this eternal spirit of adventure and inspirational energy that I think will always run through the place,” said Matias.

On reinventing the Venice Boardwalk

The team took over the Fig Tree at the start of the pandemic, spent six months rethinking the business, and opened doors in September. While part of their goal was to create a more modern and trendy restaurant, the redevelopment also sought to reconnect the business with its original values.

“We wanted to reframe a little bit what the restaurant was,” said Matias “We felt that it had kind of lost its connection to the neighborhood and to some of the principles I think the restaurant initially carried.”

The team wants to reconnect the local community with the Venice Boardwalk, which in recent years has come to cater almost exclusively to tourists and in recent months to a rapidly growing unhoused population.

“It’s never been a place that the neighborhood generally wants to go spend a bunch of time in, so that’s something that we’re trying to change,” said Matias. “There’s this feeling when you walk down the boardwalk that the city has just let it fall by the wayside.”

Matias is working to be part of a boardwalk renaissance both on a policy level, by running for Venice Neighborhood Council, and on the ground by building a safe, welcoming, community gathering spot.

So far he says it’s working.

Locals are drawn by the “beachy mystical jungle” conjured through Sophia’s floral design and playful South American playlist cultivated by Matias.

Business is booming and the team plans on bolstering their lunch and breakfast offerings with a new dinner menu very soon. They also host frequent pop-up events with nearby businesses such as Crudo e Nudo.

“Really what we’re trying to do is to highlight our guests’ day with the best neighborhood beachside cafe experience they can have,” said Matias. “I think with a happy team you create a happy environment, and with a happy environment, you get great customers and a ball of energy builds around the place.”

What to order right now

For brunchers the most popular dishes include the plantain coconut pancakes and chorizo potato omelet.

At lunchtime Matias recommends starting out with the salmon or scallop crudo tostadas and the rockfish ceviche with coconut milk. He said the beach burger makes an excellent main course and anyone with an appetite should order a double patty.

Refreshment options include a mint iced tea made with traditional South American yerba mate and a house made hibiscus iced tea. The cocktail menu focuses on fun mezcal drinks and the wine list features a range of natural and lesser known blends from South America, Mexico and California.

“Dash and I wanted to bring European wine drinking culture to Venice and we wanted to bring natural wines to the Westside at an affordable price, so you can get that same feeling of sitting in a cafe somewhere in Europe sharing a big glass carafe of wine with friends,” said Matias.

Fig Tree is open at 429 Ocean Front Walk for patio dining from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday & Saturday and from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday through Thursday.

Clara@smdp.com