Best of San Clemente: Intentional Food and Culture Earns Riviera ‘Best New Restaurant’
Operating a new restaurant can be difficult even for seasoned industry professionals, and doubly so for those who are endeavoring to do so for the first time in their lives.
It helps to take on the task with a trusty partner, which is exactly what Brent Daub and Marisa McBride did when they opened Riviera inside the San Clemente Inn in the spring of 2022.
Daub and McBride, Riviera’s chief financial officer and owner, have known each other for eight years as they work together at San Clemente law firm Gilson Daub. They’ve also previously collaborated on numerous separate projects. When the restaurant’s previous owner put the space up for sale during the pandemic, the two wondered what it would be like to run a restaurant and pursued the opportunity.
Having no clue about operating within the industry, McBride simply wanted to bring a high-quality eatery to San Clemente’s southern end, where she grew up.
“For me, there’s never been a lot down here,” she says. “The space definitely needed a makeover, so we were excited to see what we could have come out of it and bring something special to this side of town.”
It’s safe to say that pursuit has been a success, as nearly a year later, San Clemente Times readers voted Riviera as the Best New Restaurant in town, earning its first People’s Choice Golden Ole.
Coming in at second place with a Silver Ole is the popular new bar hangout Los Molinos Beer. The open-air brewery and kitchen specializes in fun sandwich options, Mexican-inspired brunch, and Taco Tuesdays.
McBride remembers that the initial days and weeks were hectic in terms of learning the ins and outs and determining the décor for Riviera. Delays in receiving items because of the COVID-19 pandemic posed another challenge.
Her innate desire to be hands-on and do what needs to be done led her to take part in varying aspects of the restaurant, such as ordering food supply or jumping in to wash dishes.
“Along the way, I’ve been able to learn a lot more about running a restaurant, because I have a financial background, and that (doesn’t have) anything to do with the food industry,” McBride says with a laugh.
She credits her team for persevering and helping the restaurant get off to as good of a start as it’s had.
One of those team members is general manager Pedro Robles, who joined the Riviera staff a few months after the restaurant opened.
Robles told SC Times that after roughly 20 years of experience, one lesson he’s brought to his new position is the intent to treat all people like family.
“We create these concepts, and we want to make money out of it, but at the same time, we want to make sure that whenever you come through that door, you feel like you’re invited to a home,” he says, adding, “That’s the most important thing I’ve learned.”
He adds that when working with staff to help them provide the best service possible, it’s essential to get the right people in the building. Robles also likened his role to being a coach on a team, in that he tries to identify people’s skills and then put them in the best spots to succeed.
McBride and Daub’s vision was to give the residents of south San Clemente a dining option just as good, if not better, than what people can find downtown. Given the lack of true sit-down spots in an area still home to thousands, she said her goal is to see locals in the community come to the restaurant.
“Our goal was to provide a higher level of food and service than anywhere, basically, in town,” says McBride. “We really focused on organics and farm-to-table (food).”
The restaurant gets most of its produce from The Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano, which requires staff to be adaptable when products may not be available from day to day or vary in quantity.
McBride says her favorite menu items are the “phenomenal” desserts that even she enjoys as someone who’s not always into sweets.
“One of those desserts (from a prior seasonal menu), the blueberry cobbler, has stuck around,” says McBride. “It is a fantastic dish, so that’s probably one of my favorites.”
She noted that while customers might see a setup akin to fine dining when they first walk in, Riviera welcomes everyone, whether coming from a golf course or the beach.
Restaurant staff, McBride says, are “thrilled” to be nominated among the best in San Clemente.
“We’ve worked really, really hard to get here,” McBride says. “For me, it’s become a real passion project, because, like I said, I was born and raised in San Clemente. So, it’s become my baby, basically.”
Their first year in business started slowly, she acknowledged, before picking up in the summer season and returning to a lull during the winter.
She emphasizes that they’re trying to spread the Riviera name in the community, but being tucked into a hotel in the city’s southern end has posed as a deterrent to bringing people inside.
Heading into year No. 2, the team will continue to create and tweak menu items, as well as take to heart the reviews they receive from customers regarding both their food and service.
McBride references a time earlier in the year when Riviera received noise complaints and she responded by completing additional soundproofing.
It’s all a part of creating an environment in which people want to spend their time, she says.
Robles adds that from a service aspect, it can be amusing to try to focus on high-quality service while avoiding being snobby. The most important thing they do is pay attention to small details, such as ensuring utensils are polished or lined up correctly, which can be easily identified within a smaller restaurant.
“It’s fun, but it’s a very small operation to run,” he says. “It gives us a little liberty to showcase what we offer, but also makes the details a little more important.”