Fifteen years ago, when Shawn and Alethea Dufraine moved from Hermosa to South Redondo—hungry and with a house full of boxes—they walked around the corner to Riviera Village and into the first restaurant they came to: Casa Playa. Both fans of Mexican food, the cinematographer and the film director found their spot and soon became regulars.
Chatting with the owner, they expressed their love for traveling the world. In each country they visited, they always fantasized about opening a Mexican restaurant. The owner soon became a friend and the restaurant a second home.
When their new friend was ready to sell, the couple didn’t have the capital to invest, so they said goodbye to that dream. Ownership changed, and the Dufraines befriended the new owner as well. Over time the staff became like family to them, keeping an eye on the couple’s young son, Sebastian, and introducing him to lots of firsts like guacamole!
A few years later, on Taco Tuesday, the owner jokingly asked if they would buy the restaurant. They considered it a sign. Before they knew it the restaurant was theirs, and they got the keys on Halloween night 2019.
Shawn quit his job to run Casa Playa full time, and they started making changes—most notably adding several plant-based menu items (Shawn is a vegetarian). Most of the employees stayed on, and when Casa Playa’s longtime cook retired, his son-in-law took over, keeping things in the family.
Alethea kept her day job of producing films, but she also dove into forging relationships with other restaurants on the street. Everything was going according to plan, but a few short months later COVID-19 hit. Luckily, since they were considered an essential business, they were allowed to stay open.
The couple used the time during the stay-at-home order to get to know the community better. Those shared struggles and common experiences bonded them to nearby restaurants L&L Hawaiian Barbecue, Pedone’s Pizza & Deli and Hi-Fi Espresso. Soon they were all helping each other with suppliers and products.
Once the world started opening back up, the couple focused on how they could not only serve tasty, fresh food but also do good for the community and the planet. On certain nights they donate a percentage of profits to neighbor Ten Thousand Villages, a fair-trade nonprofit. Alethea volunteers her time with the city of Redondo Beach, helping educate local businesses about new composting regulations.
“I try to be a good steward of the planet,” she says. Casa Playa uses compostable or recyclable to-go containers, and their local vendor turns all the compost collected into mulch and gives it away for free at twice-yearly events held at Wilderness Park in Redondo Beach.
When you walk into Casa Playa, you are greeted by amazing smells and beach prints on the walls. Look closer, and you can see another example of how the art of community-building drives this couple: The posters on the wall are John Van Hamersveld prints.
John is best known for designing record jackets from the 1960s onward and the film poster for The Endless Summer, not to mention the South Bay’s own BeachLife Festival posters. John started his career in El Segundo and still lives locally. He visits Casa Playa frequently, refreshing his prints and even signing some from time to time.
In the corner sits a vintage record player, so while you get your Mexican food fix, you can also check out the vinyl collection and select one to listen to. You might even sit next to Riviera Hall students who have the lucky opportunity once a week to practice etiquette at local dining establishments. The students are known by name and food order by Casa Playa employees.
The food is delicious, with a variety of options featuring local products like small-batch tortillas made right here in SoCal. I am currently making my way through the menu, and so far my favorite is the salsa bar, which offers five types of fresh, house-made salsas ranging from mild to get me a beer ASAP!
Once just a fun travel story and now a reality, Shawn and Alethea have created a welcoming space for the community that feeds all the senses and does good at the same time. Now that is an art.
Death becomes him.
Her own kind of music.