The Generational Gift
On the day Christy Vega was born, her father sat down at the bar of his restaurant and shared a bottle of 1800 Tequila with Marlon Brando. The following morning, elegant dresses arrived at the door. While this might sound like a story fit for Don Vito Corleone himself, the reality shares only one common thread: the importance of family.
Rafael Vega was just 22 years old in 1956 when he opened Casa Vega in Sherman Oaks, California, a Los Angeles neighborhood founded only 29 years prior. His parents emigrated from Tijuana in the late 1930s and ran the downtown LA nightclub Café Caliente for close to two decades. Rafael’s Mexican restaurant quickly became a hangout for Hollywood’s nobility. Carey Grant and Jane Fonda were regulars, as was The Godfather, Marlon Brando.
For the past decade, Christy has helmed the now-legendary California institution. She’s balanced family, tradition, and constant innovation with a deft touch—an effort she calls the “biggest challenge” of running such a time-honored restaurant.
The clientele, which is still plenty glamorous, has an unforgiving memory when it concerns the details. For instance, Christy recently removed a picture to fix a broken frame. The phone started ringing almost instantly. “People were saying, ‘Oh, we got engaged under that painting. We love that painting. Every time we come we sit under that painting. Where’s the painting?’” Christy says with a laugh. “So we had to reassure everybody that it’s there. It will be back. In a way the restaurant is ours and is our family’s, but it also belongs to everybody in the community.”
“I always feel like it’s good plastic surgery,” she continues, in very LA fashion. “You want to adjust it a little bit, but nobody notices.”
This business was always a birthright for Christy. When it came time for college, she originally wanted to attend culinary school. “No, no, no,” Christy says. “My father told me, ‘You can learn everything here. We have a full kitchen. We have a full staff. You can work in the kitchen all you want. But you have to make sure you can balance the books.’ So many restaurateurs and chefs go into business, and if you can’t do the back of the house, you’re going to close.”
Fittingly, Christy returned to Casa Vega was she was 22—the same age her father began the venture. She went right to work, punching time at every position on the floor. She carried trays of glasses, took orders, marketed, purchased, and cleaned tables. “In order to teach later on, I knew that I needed to be the student first. And I needed to sit back and watch how the people who have been here and worked for 20 years do it, and they do a fabulous job,” she says.
After six years, Christy ascended to the top of Casa Vega’s latter. Rafael continued to come in and help, answering any questions that might pop up. One day, when the restaurant found itself in a bad contract with a trash company, Christy called and got Casa Vega out. “She left with her tail between her legs and [my father] looked at me and said, ‘You got it. You don’t need me anymore.’”
“He would always let me make the decisions, and screw up, and kind of learn from them,” she adds. “I will forever be grateful for that.”
Rafael stopped coming in around five years ago, leaving the restaurant solely in Christy’s hands. “I was ready and excited. But it’s always scary because it’s such a big business and there’s so much volume,” she says. “It’s so successful that I certainly didn’t want to be the one to bring down the ship.”
That’s hardly been the case. Casa Vega is a hugely successful operation, pushing nearly 800 covers during busy days and another 500 or so in the evenings. The 115-seat restaurant remains a safe-haven for celebrities. Jennifer Aniston, who grew up nearby, frequents Casa Vega, as does the Kardashians, Nicole Richie, and Dave Grohl. Christy says she was star struck just once: “Jennifer Aniston came in with Brad Pitt,” she recalls. “I thought that was really, really cool, and they were both just so sweet and so beautiful, and they were just the nicest kind of people.”
As Christy mentioned earlier, harmonizing history and progression is a challenge. This is especially true of the food. As millennial trends, especially is Los Angeles, direct cuisine to a healthier perch, she’s had to implement some radical changes to Casa Vega’s offerings. For one, she removed lard so the restaurant would be completely non trans-fat. There’s also a Vegetarian Mexican Pizza, Organic Margarita, and a seasonal rotating cocktail list that presents some variety beside the time-tested classics. In general, she says, the restaurant showcases Mexican cuisine for what it really is—fresh, seasonal, and scratch-made. “I think the Mexican-Americans that are here [in America] today are showing everybody that this is a food that’s actually good for you. It tastes great. And we’re fighting against what Latinos have been fighting against for generations,” she says, “the fact that this is not a sub-par food.” Refried beans, for example, are flavored with chicken broth and cooked with barely any oil at Casa Vega.
There are 63 employees under Christy’s watch, many of who have spent 20-plus years at the restaurant. “Most restaurants have a turnover problem. We have the opposite. Nobody ever leaves. I have an 84-year-old waiter. I’m afraid he’s going to break a hip,” she jokes. “He’s like a piece of furniture. He’s not going anywhere.”
Christy has become a celebrity of sorts as well. She was a guest judge on Food Network’s “Guy’s Grocery Games,” and appeared on NBC’s “TODAY,” CBS’s “This Morning,” ABC’s “The View,” Bravo’s “Flipping Out,” and the “Rachel Ray” show.
Christy has four boys—Jackson, Palmer, Ryan Jr. and Cruz—and says the future remains an ever-present thought. She wants to open more Casa Vegas at some point, and perhaps even create different concepts. Right now, they’re getting ready to launch products, like salsas, margarita mix, enchilada sauce, and salad dressing.
“I’m hoping one of these avenues calls to one or all of the boys,” she says. “Sometimes when you’re born into this life, it’s not really a choice. It’s whether or not you even notice it, you become obsessed and kind of love this restaurant. It becomes part of you.”