June 8, 2021 – The COVID-19 pandemic forced many restaurants to get creative. Veterans of our local hospitality scene reinvented themselves to stay relevant—and profitable—during the “new normal.”
Clever pandemic pivots across the Central Coast included pop-up retail shops in shuttered dining rooms, elevated meal kits for takeaway, bottled cocktails to-go and new virtual operations focused on takeout and delivery. As restrictions relax and California readies to lift limitations altogether next week, many of these pivots look likely to remain—parklets have proven popular additions sure to stay in many local cities post-pandemic, the state has approved takeout cocktails through the end of the year, and ghost kitchens have taken root around town.
For nearly 30 years, the Ottone Restaurant Group has been a fixture of Monterey County’s dining scene. Its restaurants—Lalla Grill, Lalla Oceanside Grill and the shuttered PALOOZA in Monterey, and Elli’s Great American Restaurant in Salinas—are longtime local favorites. Last week, the group welcomed its newest concept—Ottone’s Family Kitchen.
But this new restaurant features a menu to enjoy not in their dining room, but yours. Ottone’s Family Kitchen is a virtual restaurant.
From pop-ups to food trucks to picnics, increasingly, restaurants are breaking the traditional mold. This newest iteration sees a culinary concept eschew a dining room and offer its bill of fare for pickup or delivery exclusively. The trend first took root in response to rising costs for restaurant operations—a virtual operation offers savings on rent and labor—but the pandemic found the model especially appealing and it’s booming in popularity nationally and locally. (Learn more about virtual restaurants and ghost kitchens in Edible Monterey Bay’s summer magazine, on newsstands now or available online.)
But in a way, Ottone’s Family Kitchen is actually a return to its roots.
Nearly 40 years ago, owner Pat Ottone named the fledgling Lallapalooza after a word his grandmother used to describe a shared family feast. Ottone’s Family Kitchen carries on the Lalla legacy with a focus on family-style food to enjoy while celebrating.
“Food brings people together and that’s become more and more important to me as I’ve gotten older,” explains Ottone. “I appreciate what food and drink brings to the social atmosphere and how important it is for families and social gatherings.”
“I’d always had this idea of doing family meals,” he recalls. “That’s the way we normally eat at home. Everyone doesn’t order something separately, we share.”
The newest addition under the Lalla umbrella operates out of the Lalla Grill kitchen and is exclusively family-style, serving up generously portioned meals and platters for takeout and delivery to feed groups of four, six or more. “It provides more of a value instead of having to order items individually,” explains Lalla Grill manager Stacey Fisher, who has helped coordinate logistics for the new virtual brand.
Ottone’s Family Kitchen leverages not just the experience of the restaurant group’s individual eateries, but its Lalla Catering operation too. The family kitchen concept offers small groups an alternative to full-scale catering. “This can be a shortcut with last-minute options for people,” says Fisher, “something you could buy for a group without having to go through a catering service.” Ottone envisions the ghost kitchen as a convenient option for family get-togethers, like birthday parties, sports team dinners and graduation parties. “We’ve been catering to offices and groups for a while, but this is more geared toward families and the home, rather than offices.”
The menu showcases favorites from across the Ottone Restaurant Group.
Signature salads—including the popular pistachio crusted chicken—are on the menu in family-style portions, as are pastas—including the signature blackened chicken alfredo and butternut squash mac and cheese. Rancho platters draw from Mexican favorites, like giant nachos, chicken enchiladas, tacos and carne asada fries. Rounding out the menu are sandwiches and burgers.
“We offer dishes we know sell well and have become the signature dishes attached to the Lalla band and Ottone name,” explains Fisher.
Ottone’s Family Kitchen also offers a selection of wines—all organic or biodynamic. Fisher curated the selections from the wine list sommelier Gianni Ottone had crafted for Lalla Grill. Look for a mix of beloved local winemakers (Chris Miller’s BOLD label and Ian Brand’s Le P’Tit Paysan, to name a few), plus some hip natural wine selections (Christina Grüner Veltliner, Dirty and Rowdy Mourvèdre, TRESOMM rosé from Baja California’s Valle de Guadalupe and more).
Order online or by phone and pick up at Lalla Grill in the Del Monte Center. Ottone’s Family Kitchen has also partnered with ChowNow, DoorDash and GrubHub for delivery—order through the apps and couriers will bring a meal directly to your door.
The Ottone Restaurant Group has four decades of experience navigating restaurant operations, but the virtual model presents new challenges.
Fisher points out new considerations for virtual operations. “You become reliant on technology because that’s what this is based on.” The brand’s virtual presence—website design, digital menus, online ordering, phones and network connectivity—are critical.
Ottone explains how a traditional restaurant depends on visibility and word of mouth from diners, and admits the new Ottone’s Family Kitchen is taking the Lalla group into new territory. “To start something different, with a different name, and you don’t have people coming to your [physical] restaurant? That’s a big challenge.”
But Ottone is not daunted.
“We’re using the same recipes and the same food, just packaging in a different way that’s more convenient for families,” he says. “It’s all about execution and consistency and making people happy—none of that has ever changed or will ever change.”
If the virtual operation takes off, Ottone sees an opportunity to open ghost kitchens at other Lalla properties.
While the ghost kitchen model is relatively new, especially here on the Central Coast, Fisher echoes Ottone in emphasizing the core of the Lalla brand remains the same between traditional operations and virtual ones. “Our values, our commitment to service—they remain the same,” she says. “We’ll continue to keep those through whatever concept we go onto.”
Ottone’s Family Kitchen • 831-277-0389, ottonesfamilykitchen.com • Open 11am to 10pm daily • Order online or by phone for pickup at Lalla Grill (1400 Del Monte Center, Monterey) • Delivery available via ChowNow, DoorDash and GrubHub (in-app delivery fees apply)