Having done this Lick the Plate gig for a while, I can sense when a restaurant owner or chef has a passion for what they do within five minutes of meeting them. I can feel that hunger and enthusiasm and willingness to sacrifice that it takes, along with a lot more, to make a restaurant work. Many are going through the motions or it’s something “fun” to do with their excess money.
That’s why it was such a joy to sit down with Paula Vrakas, 32, who two years ago purchased, along with a small group of investors, the old Roxy Café in downtown Encinitas. She has been working as the general manager plus another job for the past two years winning back old school customers and developing a new crowd that appreciates the live music seven nights a week and a menu that has really come into it’s own with the top-notch talent she has in the kitchen. Plus she is just a really straight shooter and a lot of fun.
I had a list of around 20 things I really liked about a recent lunch and dinner experience there but narrowed it down to 10 to stay within my word count limit.
So let’s start with her roots. Paula is a Wisconsin farm girl who has worked in restaurants and bars since she was 4 years old as a “milk girl” in her dad’s restaurant. That led her to Milwaukee and more industry experience before she finally headed west.
Next up is the redesigned interior that provides great sight lines to the live music and the bustling kitchen. It’s a great mix of high tops, tables, booths and sidewalk seating combined with the open windows that provides a great overall aesthetic without being too loud.
I asked Paula for a list of the bands she books and well, that ended up being a very long one, like 200-plus long, and they book more than 500 live music shows per year. Many of my local favorites like John Bennett and friends are included but also many are new to the scene and add a nice injection of fresh sounds to our local dining scene. I should add that they play at the perfect level where they can be heard but are not overpowering.
Paula also went big on her kitchen team bringing in chef Jason Benjamin and Gabriel Faller. They are teaming up to take the Roxy menu to a whole new level and they both cut their culinary chops in some of the best kitchens in San Diego.
My lunch and dinner experiences at The Roxy were both exceptional. I loved he Beet & Blue salad with organic frisee, bosch pear, toasted walnuts, crispy shallot and sherry vinaigrette along with splendid French Onion soup and a killer Turkey Club made for a very nice lunch. Dinner was bustling yet the service was spot on and our Sesame Shrimp Crusted Whole Snapper that was the catch of the day was amazing. That, along with the Al Pastor Pork Chop with chorizo corn bread, chipotle carrots, grilled pineapple pork jus and pickled jalapeno was the perfect turf to the snapper surf.
Brunch on weekends looks fabulous and I should mention their Everything but the Kitchen Sink 24oz scratch bloody Mary. It’s basically a meal with lemon, lime, olive, pickle, pepperoncini, onion, celery, cheeseburger slider, buffalo chicken tender, shrimp, thick cut bacon, and yes, served with a mini Miller High Life. Hot damn I need to try that with some Sunday football soon.
That leads me to my next thing to love about The Roxy … their Packer Sundays. Just to keep the kitchen from taking itself too seriously, they have developed a Wisconsin-centric menu for all Green Bay Packer games complete with bratwurst, cheese curds, stems and flappers, and loaded tots. Stems and flappers are chicken wings and yes; I had to look that one up. I double love this touch!
So the dancing topic has been an issue lately, as restaurants that don’t have the right license can get in trouble for a patron bobbing around in their chair too much. That is a slight exaggeration, but not much. The Encinitas Planning Commission recently voted 4-0 to allow the Coast Highway 101 restaurant to remove four tables and modify its interior to create a tiny dance floor. An entertainment permit and the necessary permits from the state Alcohol Beverage Control department are still in order but it’s a step in the right direction.
Next on the love menu is their location right in the heart of Encinitas where they help create a bustling, yet controlled vibe and I think that’s something we can all live with.
I’m going to round out the 10 things list with a combination of the cocktail program and the overall energy. The cocktails are fabulous and Encinitas is all about good energy and The Roxy has it in spades.
I’m very happy I connected with Paula Vrakas and rediscovered this place.
Find them at 517 S. Coast Highway, Encinitas (760) 230-2899 or www.roxyencinitas.com
Lick the Plate has interviewed over 700 chefs, restaurateurs, growers, brewers and culinary personalities over the past 10 years as a column in The Coast News and in Edible San Diego. He can be heard on KSON, FM94/9 and Sunny98.1. More at www.lick-the-plate.com