When Ellie’s opened three months ago on the corner of Orange Avenue and Second Street, owners and husband-and-wife duo Jason and Alexandra Witzl faced an uphill battle. Like a loving stepparent, the new restaurant inherited the space that once hosted one of Long Beach’s most cherished dining establishments, At Last Cafe, with the hopes of earning the neighborhood’s affections.
But they were (and still are) up for the challenge. “It’s difficult to be the restaurant to take over the space of a staple restaurant,” Jason Witzl, who also serves as the restaurant’s chef, said. “For our first three weeks here, no one knew that At Last Cafe had closed. People were walking in here looking around, confused, asking ‘Is this At Last Cafe?’ And I had to say no. Then they’d ask, ‘What did you do?’”
The staff was able to convince about half of those bewildered people to stay and try their food. “Those folks are probably are most loyal customers now,” the chef added.
Ellie’s is a bit of surprise in many ways. Just a peek inside the restaurant, and one might expect a certain kind of experience. The new space is familiar, charming and intimate—yet a bit elevated with white tablecloths and a more modern aesthetic that might be compared to an upscale neighborhood restaurant in a larger city like Chicago. Similarly, chef Witzl, in his early 30s, is not who one might picture at the helm of such a restaurant. With a fine dining background working with Michelin Starred chefs and establishments, Witzl can often be spotted in a T-shirt, geeking out over pasta and yams, and looking very at home in this lowkey (read: not stuffy) neighborhood.
Thankfully, the price point at Ellie’s—while still just a bit above At Last Cafe—is within reach for folks who enjoy handmade pasta but aren’t struggling to park their Rolls-Royce in Alamitos Beach. Even the three-course Quartiere menu, which comprises a chef’s choice appetizer, choice of any pasta, plus a seasonal dessert, is just $25. “We want this restaurant to be a place where you could come and ball out if you want to, and get a lobster or a steak,” Witzl said. “But we didn’t want to price anyone out.”
While the highlight of the menu is the pasta, all of the vegetable dishes really shine. As a regular farmers market shopper, Witzl takes the mediterranean approach to produce by getting everything fresh and in season, and letting the ingredients speak for themselves. The yam appetizer, one of Witzl’s best-kept secrets, was the result of a late trip to the farmers market during which the chef came across a great deal, ending up with a surplus of yams in his kitchen.
The roasted yam comes served with pickled onions and raw shallots, topped with an herb salad and sesame seeds, and set atop a fried egg aioli. It was an instant hit when Witzl put it on the restaurant’s Quartiere menu. “Listen, people aren’t stoked when you drop their first course in front of them and tell them it’s a yam,” he laughed. “But we got such great feedback that people were walking back to the kitchen to compliment the dish, and I’m totally stoked with them.”
The pastas are expertly crafted with all flavors, textures and ingredients taken into careful consideration. The cavatelli is a hearty dish that comes with sausage and earthy mushrooms, balanced by sweet roasted beets and tomatoes. The ravioli comes swimming in sauce, also contrasting the bold flavors of black truffle and kale with Calabrian honey. One of Witzl’s favorites is the mandilli dish, which, according to the chef, gives him a “mac ’n’ cheese vibe.” “When people come in here with their families or friends, it’s one of their favorite things to put on the table to show everyone they know what’s up,” he said.
So far, all of the little surprises at Ellie’s have been charming guests, despite the daunting task of inheriting At Last Cafe’s old home. “In the end, I just want to be Ellie’s,” Witzl said. “We’re doing something new in this neighborhood, and I want to make sure it’s the perfect experience for our diners. We want people to be blown away by a yam or a simple pasta dish. Ultimately, I want Ellie’s to be just that.”