On special occasions like winning a soccer game or acing my math exam (which happened rarely), my parents would take me down to Baskin-Robbins in the Riviera Village a few blocks from my house to pick out my favorite ice cream from their 31 flavors offered. I always knew we were getting close when I would see the “big fish” sign lit up in the night sky. The “big fish” sat high above the street corner of Avenue I and the Pacific Coast Highway.
The words on the sign glowed “Millie Riera’s Seafood Grotto,” with an arrow pointing toward the ocean. When I was a kid I thought nothing of it because my mind was already consumed by ice cream. But years passed, and it went from ice cream to skateboarding at Fatburger (still there) after homework was finished. During evening skates I could see the glow of the big fish just off in the distance. Then I began to wonder: What is that? And who’s Millie Riera? I don’t recall any seafood grottos close by … and what’s a grotto anyway?
Joe Riera was a sardine and tuna fisherman. He lived for the ocean, and his prize catch was swordfish. He fished along the California coast until he finally decided to put roots down in San Pedro. His passion for the ocean and fishing led to his dream of one day having his own seafood restaurant, inspired by the small eateries on the wharfs of San Francisco.
One afternoon Joe and his wife, Millie, stumbled upon a picturesque location on the sand dunes of Redondo Beach. Joe fell in love with the location and told himself that one day it would be where he would build his own restaurant. But at the time, World War II was underway and dreams had to wait.
Once the war concluded, Joe was still needled by this pie-in-the-sky idea, so he decided to go for it. To his friends, opening a restaurant right after the war out in the nothingness of the sand dunes of Redondo Beach seemed irrational and hairbrained. “Joe’s flipped his wig” was the coined phrase used around town once word got out.
Joe let it slide off his back. He had a dream, and he was going to see to it that the dream came to fruition. And that’s how Joe’s very own Vista Del Mar Seafood Grotto was born in 1946 on the sand dunes of Avenue I in Redondo Beach.
Much to the dismay of his naysayers, the restaurant became a quick success. All fish was caught fresh by either Joe or his brother. Their signature dish became cioppino, comprised of shrimp, clams, mussels, calamari and sea bass—attracting a clientele from all over the South Bay and Los Angeles. But they were attracted to more than the tasty menu, Millie suggested. “It was his personality. Everyone just loved him. It wasn’t the idea of ‘Let’s go have seafood.’ It was the idea, ‘Lets go see Joe.’ When he was around, it was playtime for everyone.”
Joe brought his dream to his community, but just 10 years later his life tragically ended—a heart attack. A shockwave was sent through the community, and the family was left with the decision to pack it up and let the restaurant go … or keep going. Millie chose the latter.
Vista Del Mar and Millie Riera’s Seafood Grotto over the years
“I made myself a promise—I was going to keep myself independent,” she said. “I don’t want any handouts from anybody. Do you know what it’s like being a rat, cornered? You have to fight to get out, to fight for your kids’ survival. So that’s what I did.”
And so Millie Riera’s Seafood Grotto was born. Millie made it her own. It was everything Joe created—and then some. The fish was just as delicious, the ambience was exceptional and customers felt good knowing it was still a Riera family-owned operation. Millie went on to serve the community at her restaurant for another 41 years—as a widowed, single mother of three children.
But just like every good story, there was plenty of opposition. While Millie was fighting to keep the restaurant alive, these things were happening: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (1963), the U.S. entered the Vietnam War (1965), the aerospace downturn (1980), the first AIDS cases were reported (1981), the stock market tanked (1987) and Operation Desert Storm began (1991).
Eventually the doors to Millie Riera’s Seafood Grotto closed in 1997, after a 51-year run. The sign—the “big fish” I would see on the way to ice cream—came down in 2005.
Pause. Let’s zoom out for a second and review. Joe starts the business in 1946. Millie takes it over in 1956. Doors close in 1997. Sign doesn’t come down until 2005. That is nearly 60 years that the Riera name had its stamp on the Redondo Riviera. It withstood death, severe economic downturn, even war. Safe to say it had its fair share of uncertain moments. Sounding familiar yet?
Let’s pause the story here. The stage has been set. Now let’s ask ourselves, “How can we explain such longevity amidst such adversity?” Think about that. We’ll come back to it.
Fast-forward to present day. I first met Nick Riera—son of Joe Riera Jr. and grandson of Joe Riera—where else? In the ocean. Just like his grandfather, he has an affinity for the ocean. To say the culinary restaurateur gene runs deep would be an understatement. It’s who he is.
Left: Millie and Joe; right: the memorable neon sign.
For perspective, at age 14 Nick went to work as a dishwasher at the San Pedro Fish Market five minutes from his house. By age 15 he was promoted to oyster shucker. He worked every day, so his dad figured it would be a good idea to teach him how to drive a stick shift so he could drive himself to work—at 15. Ah, the good ol’ days.
From there Nick took a bussing job at the Williams family restaurant the Mexican Riviera; by the time he left, he was the general manager. On down the line he helped launch and manage restaurant after restaurant in the South Bay.
And now Nick has made the decision to continue the family legacy and open his own place in Redondo five minutes from his grandparents’ original location. It is appropriately named Riera’s Place—a neighborhood deli that cooks their own meats in-house as well as importing. Everything is natural and hormone- and nitrate-free. They also serve cheeses, sandwiches, homemade poke, Baja-style ceviche and crab cakes.
What I love is that Nick has incorporated the original recipes and marinades from his grandma’s Millie Riera’s Seafood Grotto—things like the original Sicilian pizza bread recipe, the original bleu cheese dressing, clam chowder … the list goes on and on. Butcher paper-wrapped, family-inspired, locally sourced, one-stop-shop tastiness.
Pause. How many new restaurant launches have you heard of over the last few months? Pause again. What are the two ways the human brain responds to fear? Think about it. We’ll come back to it.
We find ourselves in unprecedented times. The COVID-19 virus has single-handedly brought a global economy to its knees. Kids are no longer in school. Public spaces have been closed. Unemployment has skyrocketed. Fear runs rampant. Uncertainty has fueled real anxiousness. And there are no answers. Will it get better? Will it get worse? No one knows anything. For some, it has done some very real damage that should not be discounted.
Nick Riera at his new restaurant
So now what? Fight? Or flight? Joe chose to fight. Millie fought as well. Now it’s Nick’s turn. As boards are going up, he has chosen to cut the ribbon and open his doors. Just as his grandfather swam upstream with his dream, Nick is doing the same. Funny how life plays itself out like that.
Yet when talking to Nick, his tone is light. He’s enjoying it. Yes, there is plenty of work to be done. No, the outcome is not guaranteed. Yes, it can be a struggle. Yes, he’s doing it in the middle of a global pandemic. But he’s buoyant through it all. He seems to be having fun with it—probably just as much fun as his grandfather had building his dream.
And when asked about his grand vision for it all, he responds, “I just want people to remember my family’s legacy. I’m doing it in a different way, but my family has always taken care of people. And we want to give them food just so they can enjoy themselves.”
So I’ll ask again, how can we explain such longevity in the Riera story amidst so much adversity? I think the answer is simple: When you are true to the mission that you feel is an instinctual call for how you need to be in the world, and you share that freely with others in a profound and fundamental way, nothing has the ability of stopping that. Not death, war, economic decline, virus … nothing. It may not always come in the form you think, but it’s a funny world and it has a funny way of showing up for those who let it when it’s driven by passion and for the benefit of others.
Here’s to another 60 years, Nick. It would not surprise me to see a new and improved Riera “big fish” sign go back up in the Riviera someday soon. Keep going. The world needs more of this.
The restaurant plans to open mid-August. For more information, go to rierasplace.com. Better yet, walk in. Nick will be there. His family will probably be there too. They are located at 1908 South Pacific Coast Highway in Redondo Beach. Feel the South Bay roots for yourself.