Savoring the Elegant and Edible Charms of the New Slay Steak + Fish House in Manhattan Beach

A new classic.

We had started the evening with fancy bowties, talk of proper silverware and high hopes. A veteran of fine dining, our 12-year-old daughter has been “reviewing” restaurants since the days of high chairs, bibs and parental prayers. (She recently casually reminded my husband that the outside fork gets used first.) My 9-year-old son, on the other hand, is pure boy … and with a rascal buddy in tow, we weren’t sure how the night would go as our party of five arrived at Slay Steak + Fish House in Manhattan Beach.

My attention was immediately drawn to the space’s transformation. Previously Darren’s, a beloved neighborhood institution I remember reviewing when I was first dating my husband during his bachelor days at the beach, the dining room is now beautifully updated with nautical notes. A whimsical mural of dapper dandies gives an H.M.S. Pinaforevibe, and the open rafters, navy color scheme and polished brass evoke a wooden sailing ship from days gone by. With only 15 tables and a packed bar, the space on a recent Saturday night was humming even with a family-friendly early dinner
reservation at 6 p.m.

Then my son hit his head and hit it hard against a brass railing that rims the dining room, as he and his buddy slid into the leather banquette. The guys were looking dapper and had been so excited to experience a “fancy” dinner. My son fought back the tears, but with a goose egg swelling on the back of his head, he hid his face in my lap and sobbed. Then my husband spilled his water glass and spilled it spectacularly. Meanwhile, the little buddy brandished a steak knife and marveled at how sharp it was. My daughter rolled her eyes. I ordered a Manhattan.

As this comedy of errors unfolded, a nice young guy with an easygoing surfer’s demeanor consistently popped over to our table to offer ice for the bump, fresh dry napkins for the soggy table and a subtly swapped butter knife for the buddy. (Our server, Megan, also could not have been more patient or helpful.) It turned out this solicitous fellow was David Slay Jr., the son of the chef, who was soon joined by his mother, Gale, as the whole team joined forces to rescue what could have been a disastrous dinner.

As a parent, food writer and 17-year veteran of hospitality work, I don’t think I’ve ever met nicer restaurant people. It is patently clear that they lovewhat they do, that you are welcome in their house and that they genuinely want you to have a good time. Even if the food had been horrible and the wines mere plonk, these folks had me at “hello” due to their warm welcome for our motley tribe.

But on to the food and wine, because Slay Steak + Fish House offers some serious eats. Chef David Slay Sr. trained at some temples of haute cuisine (with two-star chef Gérard Vié at Trois Marches in Versailles and A. Beauvilliers Restaurant in Paris with famed chef Marc Angel) before launching Beverly Hills’ beloved La Veranda and two successful restaurants in Orange County.

With his eponymous Slay opening in Manhattan Beach, where he and his family live, one senses that Chef David is coming home culinarily. While there are aspirational notes like an elaborate stuffed pork chop roulade with raisins, sourdough and soy, there are also homey American touches like twice-baked potatoes and a classic iceberg wedge. On the appetizer side, standouts included steakhouse classics like shrimp cocktail with fresh-grated horseradish and some lovely seasonal squash blossoms stuffed with ricotta and chèvre and finished with a carrot-top pesto. On the topic of veggies, much of Slay’s produce is sourced directly from the family’s farm and vineyard up in the Santa Rita Hills, so seasonality and freshness are optimized.

About that vineyard … the Santa Rita Hills appellation in western Santa Barbara County is a moody, fog-driven climate where finicky pinot noir and chardonnay thrive. Purchased and rebranded in 2017, the Slay’s vineyard is producing very fine fruit indeed. The chardonnay is captured in two different house brands, Slayer and Slay, the latter
of which is also sourced from Verna’s Vineyard. And the 2017 Slayer pinot noir is an absolute steal at just $18 a glass. Fans of the wines can also purchase them directly from the winery or enjoy them at one of the Slayer family’s several restaurants. With a newly announced venture taking over the Jimmy’s Kouzina space in Manhattan Beach, South Bay residents will soon have another Slay location to enjoy.

Dinner continued, and my son cheered up considerably when the excellent USDA prime rib eye showed up with potatoes he assessed as “yummy” and “almost as good as Grammy’s.” True to form, the observant chef noticed the little boys struggling to cut their shared steak. He swiftly popped out from the kitchen and cheerfully divvied it up tableside for them. They were mightily impressed by his chef’s knife, and I was equally impressed by a chef who took the time to step off the line at 8 p.m. on a Saturday to make a pair of 9-year-olds feel like restaurant VIPs. This restaurant is classy from top to bottom, with great food served with genuine hospitality. Our family looks forward to returning again and soon.

1141 Manhattan Avenue in Manhattan Beach  |  310-504-0902

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