Chef David Slay Becomes a Welcome Fixture for a Hungry and Sociable South Bay

Slay street.

  • Category
    Eat & Drink, People
  • Written by
    Ursula Beatt
  • Photographed by
    Shane O’Donnell

Many nights a week, a handsome gentleman can be spotted walking briskly along three blocks of Manhattan Avenue in Manhattan Beach. He stops every few feet to shake hands or have a quick chat, like an ambassador on a mission.

This is David Slay, owner of four thriving restaurants in a straight line between Manhattan Beach and Hermosa Beach—Slay Steak + Fish House, Slay Italian Kitchen, Fête and Slay Hermosa—as well as a vineyard and special events estate nestled in the hills near Santa Barbara wine country. With a flock of white hair, grey-blue inquiring eyes and a boyish smile, he charms instantly—displaying both humility and a kind heart.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, to a Lebanese father (also a restaurateur) and an Irish mother, David grew up with six siblings and enjoyed simple but delicious home-cooked food. Sunday dinners were never to be missed, manners were nonnegotiable, and daily family gatherings around the table provided nourishment and conversation. David started to work in his father’s restaurant kitchens at age 11 and never looked back.

“Food unites people. I want to honor them for choosing my restaurants and express my gratitude.”

Chef David has dedicated his life to creating unique environments for food and celebration. The many aspects of his success and the number of highly acclaimed venues he has opened over the years are impressive. But what makes David shine is the passion with which he speaks about his clients and the deep appreciation he feels for their patronage.

“Food unites people,” he says. “I want to honor them for choosing my restaurants and express my gratitude.”

Each day from the moment he wakes up, Chef David devotes time to learning about the client list of the day and giving orders to his staff about the clients’ preferences and needs. He writes notes about any customer he meets so he can remember what they like when they return. With four buzzing restaurants in two neighboring towns, this is no small feat.

Chef David oversees, directs and curates the daily business with ease and utter commitment. During the evening he dashes among the restaurants, greeting old and new customers with equal attention, sitting down for a quick chat, taking a gift of a bottle of Slay wine to a table or sending home dessert for a client’s kids. He is in all four kitchens throughout the night, tasting the food to ensure it is up to his expectation of uncompromising perfection. And he is never quite satisfied, which is the fuel needed for excellence.

With mind-blowing attention to detail, a sincere respect for people and a profound dedication to all aspects of the business, Chef David stands out in the world of restaurateurs. He is equally generous with his time and money. During COVID-19, he regularly sent pizzas to the Manhattan Beach retail community. He is loyal to his purveyors and motivating to his expertly trained staff, who draw inspiration from their boss. He promotes and values a hunger for learning.

“Ishmael started as a dishwasher,” he shares, “but he was always curious about everything in the kitchen, so I gave him a chance to grow. Today he is one of my best young chefs.”

Every three months the restaurants get fully repainted, and daily maintenance and cleaning crews ensure things look brand new across the venues. Gale, David’s wife and the mother of his three children, remains instrumental in the design, decor and overall aesthetic of the restaurants, taking care of the flowers and other details. Though these small touches result in a high overhead, Chef David believes there are no shortcuts to excelling at what you do.

Slay Estate & Vineyard is another love child for David. Founded in 2017, it was the natural culmination of his longtime passion for winemaking and his desire to have his own delicious wine to serve clients and friends at his restaurants. Working one-on-one with the winemakers brings immense joy to his busy life.

The vineyard produces 3,000 cases of wine annually—pinot noir, chardonnay and rosé—some of which is served at the restaurants and given as gifts. Chef David generously waives the cork fee at his restaurants to facilitate a wonderful dining experience that sometimes includes a beloved bottle from clients’ own cellars.

His estate also boasts farmland with sustainably grown vegetables, and a beautiful event space that hosts weddings and private events with his signature style and beauty.

With such success, what keeps a chef and businessman of this caliber grounded and humble? David reminisces that his family-oriented upbringing and the values taught by his parents were certainly a good start. Growing up in restaurant kitchens and being part of a big family taught him the need for multitasking, impeccable organization, delegation and teamwork. With a smile, he remembers his mother allowing him to cook for the family one night when he was barely 14; he used every single pan and pot to create the simple but delicious meal.

At age 18, David apprenticed at Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas. He learned from maître d’ Luigi Piccone and food and beverage manager Victor Greger—two elegant, worldly gentlemen working the restaurant scene like champions. This was the glamorous Vegas of the late ’70s—Frank Sinatra, gambling and innovative food. Luigi and Victor spoke multiple languages, and David watched with awe how effortlessly they greeted their international high-rolling clients—each in their own language. A seed was planted as to how he wanted to host his clients one day.

An event that gravely marked his life was his father’s brutal murder in his own St. Louis restaurant by some of his employees. David, who was barely 20 at the time, found his father as he entered the restaurant. He shares with deep sadness in his eyes that the image will never leave him.

Yet the event taught him valuable lessons, requiring strength, positivity and resilience to overcome. Although devastated by this loss, he continued to pursue his path and opened his first restaurant—a small French café with no liquor license (he was not yet 21!).

“This tragedy did not stop me from moving forward,” David says, “because I wanted to continue my father’s legacy and—even if he could not witness my success—make him proud.”

When you visit his restaurants, you notice their diversity in decor and menu, yet they all have a warm, neighborhood feel. Chef David creates healthy, simple, clean and delicious dishes at all of his venues and, to this day, loves to be in the kitchen, cooking and teaching. He thrives on interactions with his clients, purveyors, staff and neighboring restaurateurs.

“I love what I do,” he shares. “I am immersed in my restaurants and the vineyard. I work hard to keep my 200 employees motivated and my customers happy. I live in a wonderful beach community with great camaraderie among the merchants. I am not afraid of challenges. I welcome them.”

He loves to work alone and has never searched for business partners. “I spend a lot of time thinking about what people want and what concepts work. In those moments, solutions and creative ideas come to me with ease.”

Despite his focus on work, the most important thing in life is his family. He is very proud of his three children and the fact that they get along extremely well. Daily family dinners reminiscent of his upbringing have kept the family close even though Chef David runs a business that does not end until late at night.

When asked about future plans, his face breaks into that boyish smile. “I believe I have two to three more new restaurants in me. My footprint works. I own and fund my businesses and keep things controllable. And I have too much fun. I am not ready to stop creating.”

Join the Southbay Community

Receive the latest stories, event invitations, local deals and other curated content from Southbay.
By clicking the subscribe button, I agree to receive occasional updates from Southbay.