About Face

Adios, Mucho. Hello, Circa! Manhattan Beach welcomes a cool new eatery and an exciting new chef.

Around, about, near, approximately—Manhattan Beach has always been circa Los Angeles. As a non-native and non-driver who washed westward 10 years ago, I once cried crocodile tears for the “real” Manhattan—this while cheerfully dating a cute guy who lived just a few blocks off Manhattan Beach Boulevard.

I’d quickly realized that the South Bay wasn’t part of Los Angeles at all—a distinction that was both welcome (awesome beach runs along The Strand!) and woeful (doesn’t ANY restaurant here serve wine that isn’t corporate?)  

Lots has changed in the years since, both for us and for that sleepy beach town somewhere south of the city where pancakes and cheap tacos once reigned as culinary titans. I married that guy, and I sure as heck started driving, for one thing, and I learned to avoid the 405 as I’d once carefully avoided the sun. And Manhattan Beach finally got new restaurants, at long last.

Mike Zislis, a Palos Verdes native, is as much to thank (or blame, depending on your mindset) as anyone, when it comes to culinary change in MB. With restaurants as disparate as The Strand House and Rock’n Fish literally staring each other down, Zislis is the guy who wins no matter the outcome of the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral, by virtue of owning both big guns.

It’s smart business, particularly in a small town that attracts both shoeless surfers and studio elites. Bucket of brews? Check. Artisanal cocktail? Check. Mike Zislis? Many checks.

It’s cocktail madness at Zislis’ latest incarnation, Circa, which replaced his Mexican concept Mucho. The space has a vaguely industrial feel; it’s aspirational décor that nevertheless enshrines the TV at the very busy bar where thirsty young things swill drinks like the cheekily named Richard Pryor, made with “smoked coke.” Rising beverage star Julian Cox has all the requisite bells and whistles, like small-batch spirits, fancy ice shapes and all manner of house-made potions to keep Circa’s guests well-lubricated.

The wine list is also a quantum leap ahead for the South Bay, with gems like a dry rosé from Birichino up in Santa Cruz that tastes like summer in Cap d’Antibes. Other good bets include a quirky Slovenian white from Kogl and a killer Rioja that’s a steal at only $9 a glass.  

… all the requisite bells and whistles, like small-batch spirits, fancy ice shapes and all manner of house-made potions.”

As at The Strand House, Zislis has strategically partnered with Los Angeles chefs looking to balance their culinary skills with his business acumen. Neal Fraser’s help at The Strand House is echoed by the presence of Octavio Becerra as the consulting chef at Circa, and Becerra’s signature notes—local California produce enlivened with global spices—echo across the menu.

But the real story here is the not-quite-30 executive chef Bryon Freeze, who is primed to be one of the next big breakout names. From stinging nettles to stone-ground Georgia grits to Indian-spiced sunchokes, Bryon’s cooking reflects a sincere passion for products and how they arrive at your plate.

Getting locals to eat just slightly out of their comfort zone will be a challenge at Circa, but one hopes that Freeze will continue to get a culinary leash long enough to exercise his considerable talents.

903 Manhattan Avenue
Manhattan Beach