Off the Venice Beach Boardwalk and up Rose Avenue’s residential stretches stands a corner restaurant many locals call theirs. Chulita, a modern Mexican restaurant, is the neighborhood’s sun-drenched spot for all things botanas y mezcales.
But behind the beachy space is a classic tale of new-to-the-city dwellers in search of community. And it all began one balmy Los Angeles evening, when Shireen Imani, a fresh new resident of Venice Beach, went looking for a neighborhood spot to have dinner by herself.
Spoiler alert: She didn’t find what she was looking for.
Imani, a second-generation Iranian American, didn’t leave New York with the intention of opening a restaurant. Yet after moving near Abbot Kinney, she realized very quickly what she was yearning for: a sense of community. “A lot of people were always talking about the Venice community that was back in the day,” says Imani. “And what brings people together better than food and drinks?”
Grace Mahary felt similarly uprooted, too. “A lot of the neighborhood sense, for me, was lost when I moved between New York and LA,” says Mahary, an Eritrean-Canadian model-turned-sommelier.
The two women had met through Mahary’s husband and, as New York City transplants, quickly became friends. Mahary had just completed her sommelier certification and had taken a strong interest in mezcal. They conceived a casual, local spot that would showcase mezcal and tequila and could bring locals together. “I wanted a place off the beaten path,” explains Imani, “A place for people in the neighborhood to come and get together.”
Fueled by her vision of a neighborhood hangout, Imani skipped the typical investment route, reaching out instead to a motley crew of BIPOC friends — including Mahary and her husband — to create what she calls a “community-oriented investment group.”
“All of us have this inclination to host and bring people over to our places,” explains Mahary. “And Chulita is that.”
The restaurant’s name — a term of endearment for beautiful women — came about when Imani realized that everyone involved in opening the restaurant, from the chef and bar manager to the accountant and lawyer, was a woman.
“I didn’t want to draw attention to it, because I wanted it to be natural, like, ‘Well yeah, we’re women, of course,’” says Imani. “But it’s gotten to a point where the dialogue needs to change. I felt it was important to showcase [Chulita] as a minority-owned business, as a woman-owned business.”
Chulita opened its doors in November 2018; locals were quick to adopt it. “I attracted a lot of neighborhood people, and they gave me such a positive and warm reception because they realized I wasn’t trying to be a hotspot,” says Imani.
Chulita’s menu pays tribute to Oaxacan foodways, while also presenting Mexican cuisine through a Californian lens. It was important for Imani and Mahary to work with Mexican farmers and distillers. The bar only boasts non-diffuser mezcals and tequilas, meaning they’re made the traditional way, while also highlighting women-owned brands, like Real Minero and Pueblo Viejo.
But most surprising is how Chulita’s community-oriented model has seeped into the back of house itself. After hiring an opening chef to develop the initial menu, and then Japanese Mexican chef David Yamaguchi to help evolve it — you can thank him for the restaurant’s mushroom carnitas taco — Chulita’s kitchen is now without a head chef … and plans on remaining so.
“Our team, they’d rather work as a community and as a family rather than a top-down situation,” explains Mahary. Chulita’s cooks hail from various regions in Oaxaca, and recipe development has become a collaborative affair.
More than a year after opening, Imani, Mahary, and the rest of the Chulita crew feel they have successfully carved out their very own community. When COVID-19 forced restaurateurs to shut down dining rooms, it was neighborhood regulars who convinced Imani to reopen for takeout.
“The community’s the motivator,” says Imani. “When a bunch of people gather in one place, they feel a sense of purpose, of belonging. A restaurant gives you an instant community … And I think that’s what we have missed the most, as owners. Because that’s what we live for.”
Chulita is currently open every day from 12 to 9 p.m. for takeout (call 424-252-9886 to place your order) and to-stay with limited patio seating. Save Chulita to your personal Hit List and get notified when the restaurant officially reopens for outdoor dining, with reservations exclusively on Resy.