Places like Teléferic, Flor y Solera, and Xuntos created a chorus of tapas, pintxos, and paella last year when a wave of Spanish food washed up on Los Angeles’s shores. While Silver Lake’s well-placed Moruno closed after just a year, most of the other spots have endured a shaky time in the local restaurant industry including a six-month Hollywood strike. Sandra Cordero, who owns Gasolina Cafe in Woodland Hills and opened Xuntos in Santa Monica in July 2023, knows what it takes to build a place that can last. Her first restaurant opened in 2015 and grew from a 750-square-foot space into a beloved emporium of Spanish delights selling tinned fish, paella, and wine.
Eater spoke with Cordero about the first six months of business at Xuntos, the differences between the clientele in Santa Monica and the San Fernando Valley, the challenges with service charges, and what she hopes for in the coming year as one of LA’s most notable Spanish restaurants.
Cordero: Overall it’s been a really good ride. Opening a restaurant is a roller coaster in the first year. The opening was one of the smoothest ones I’ve been involved in, but the business got really unpredictable. The last two months of the year were definitely a disappointment because we thought we were going to have a busy holiday season, but it never happened. Being new with so much good press and feedback, we still did okay. We did have to cut down on some staff so that’s painful.
On the menu
Cordero: People keep asking when we’re going to have the pescadito frito back because it became such a hit. I don’t want to use frozen anchovies flown in, so I’m waiting for when they’re back in the water in California. Right now we have more dishes like a morcilla blood sausage with Swiss chard and beet puree. The sausage is so earthy and wintery to me. We put a short rib dish that’s super comforting with orange and marcona gremolata. We are also getting a full liquor license with hopes of opening a little earlier and staying open a later to get more pintxos out on the bar and get that scene going.
On the Valley versus the Westside
Cordero: This beautiful old building in Santa Monica just spoke to my European soul. I think this restaurant really represents me. With Gasolina, we made a lot of adjustments because it’s in the Valley. When we opened, we had a tiny 750-square-foot space, and I still had a three-year-old child. The finances were super limited. I took all of the experience of eight years of having my place when opening Xuntos. I was a lot more confident opening this place because I always had a strong point of view. Also, we had a good team on board. It’s harder to find good staff in the Valley but in Santa Monica, there’s a different level of people that live in the area that are more into the food and really excited. It was a really pleasant surprise because we didn’t have to train people from scratch.
It’s kind of the same with the clientele, too. In Woodland Hills, we always have to convince people a little bit. In Santa Monica, it’s more international with more tourists, especially in the summer there were so many Spaniards. When I saw that response, I thought, ‘Okay, I’m not crazy, people like this too.’
On riding the wave of Spanish food
Cordero: I’m really excited about that movement, the more people get exposed to Spanish food the more normal it becomes. This restaurant really is my love letter to Spain, a place that I went to for summers and even Christmas as a child. Even though I grew up in Amsterdam, I hated Dutch-style food. The Spanish lifestyle is much more in my heart. This is a very personal restaurant. I hung up some pictures of my family. When you’re authentic, you can only hope that people respond to that.
On leaning into relaxation
Cordero: In Spain, food is just food, even in a Michelin-starred restaurant. The staff just feels much more casual than going to fancy restaurants here. It’s funny because the other night I stopped by a table that was using a knife to eat the ribs. I said, ‘Just use your hands, what are you doing?’ People think this is a fancy place but I just want people to have a good time. I wish people could be more open-minded, go out, and just have an experience. It’s so much more fun. That’s what I wanted to create with this restaurant with multiple spaces. You can have a party. You can sit at the bar. If you’re on a romantic date, we put you in this place we call the Smoochy Corner. I want people to come with the whole family, whether they have a baby or a grandparent or a date.
On service charges
Cordero: Everyone wants to tell you how to run your business. The service charge is noted on the menu, on the website, and the receipt, and is fully distributed to hourly employees. All my employees get a weekly report. We’re very transparent; I’m an open book. We’re not trying to scam anybody. I want to pay people a living wage and I strongly believe this is the way forward. I think tipping needs to be done (there is still an optional tip line on the receipt due to customer request). In Europe, a tip is a tip, so you can pay $5 on a $200 bill. Here, our pay range for front-of-house is $40 an hour, depending on the month, and $25 and up an hour for back-of-house, though they usually have more hours with the prep involved. Most of our bad reviews are about the service charge, but people want to work in this environment because it creates real teamwork.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.