Zachari Dunes on Mandalay Beach, a Curio Collection hotel by Hilton, in Oxnard, California and The Pierside hotel alongside the Santa Monica Pier: Two hotels 50 miles apart from each other on the California coastline opened by the same real estate investment trust that feature restaurants developed by the same food and beverage veteran, Don Falgoust.
But the similarities between both properties end there. The dining venues at each hotel are unique to the property’s goals and market dynamics. In an era that finds many hotel entrepreneurs scrambling to shoehorn a local concept into a property—using the same template that may have worked in another locality with a few local twists—the individuality of these two hotels and their restaurants indicates a more granular approach.
In Oct. 2022, RLJ Lodging Trust launched Zachari Dunes on Mandalay Beach, a Curio Collection hotel by Hilton, in Oxnard, Calif. The group gave the former Embassy Suites property a complete, multi-million-dollar transformation under the new brand flag, recasting it as a 250-all-suite lifestyle resort—offering an elevated experience for more affluent travelers as well as groups and banquet business, meetings, and weddings. Not far away, RLJ also opened The Pierside hotel, in Feb. 2023 alongside the Santa Monica Pier.
To get the food and beverage offerings right, RLJ Lodging Trust turned to a familiar face: Don Falgoust, who had been vice president of RLJ until his retirement in 2020—after which he became principal of Spot On F&B Services Group. RLJ hired the consultancy to conceptualize the foodservice offerings at both properties, from design to programming, “and everything in between,” said Falgoust.
A seaside refresh for Zachari Dunes’ dining options
At Zachari Dunes, Falgoust said his approach was to create a resort-based bar and restaurant that would create harmony with the resort and surrounding area, with a guest experience that would feel like a freestanding independent bar and restaurant. That concept became Ox & Ocean, covering dayparts from breakfast to dinner, including brunch.
“I wanted the experience to be approachable and ingredient-driven with an emphasis on simplicity of outstanding, locally sourced products,” Falgoust said. “In terms of the bar at Ox & Ocean, we wanted to create a focus on tropical drinks without feeling like a tiki bar.”
Located near the pool area, a grab-and-go outlet in a converted Airstream trailer, Sugar Beats, is guests’ go-to for quick bite under the canopy of trees, near waterfalls and streams. Offerings include local coffee and breakfast, fresh-made seafood options, portable libations such as craft beer, single-serve cocktails and wine, and adult Popsicles.
“Sugar Beats was conceptualized to fit in with the ever-popular seafood ‘shack’ food trucks that are so iconic on the Pacific Coast Highway,” Falgoust explained.
Because of the localized, fresh appeal of the two venues, Falgoust said, a significant percentage of resort guests opt to stay on-property for their dining experiences as opposed to venturing out to nearby eateries.
“My experiences in the market date back to 2008, and to this day, I feel that food and beverage options in the market are mostly mundane and vanilla,” Falgoust said. “Given the abundance of local product, that is simply hard to fathom….I set out to offer the intrigue, quality and of-the-moment experiences that both L.A. and Santa Barbara offer while utilizing the robust local bounty of ingredients. To a degree, we have become the food and beverage ‘oasis’ in a market starved for exactly that.”
Appealing to customers beyond hotel resort guests
For The Surfing Fox, The Pierside’s casual outlet, which opened in mid-2023, Falgoust again studied the local market in Santa Monica rather than consider the hotel in a self-contained vacuum. In addition to giving the resort’s guests a reason to dine on-property, The Surfing Fox would enable Zachari Dunes to entice outsiders.
“There are countless options within steps of The Pierside, ranging from national chains to local venues,” Falgoust said. “I knew that with the outdoor space we have, directly adjacent to the pier, by creating a bar-centric environment that serves food, we would hit it out of the park. The pedestrian traffic is significant, and for a decade and a half it was never taken advantage of. Also, it was clear that not only the design of both the indoor and outdoor space would be a make-or-break, but also that we need to be the market leader in service execution.”
Executive chef David Yamaguchi created specialty dishes such as Halibut with yuzu tomato butter, thai tea tiramisu with brown sugar boba, and koji-brined roasted chicken with coconut sauce and green sambal. The restaurant’s drinks menu of “Foxtails”—including the signature Prickly Pear, comprising tequila, prickly pear, hibiscus cordial, and black lava salt—complements the fresh fare, along with California-sourced spirits, wines, and beers. The Surfing Fox pulls double-duty duty as a coffeehouse during the breakfast daypart.
“Since [The Surfing Fox] has only been open a matter of weeks, [success] is early to gauge, as we have not seen the various seasons,” Falgoust said. “However, I have been impressed to see the high velocity of movement on the incredible small plates we created, and the beverage program is the talk of Santa Monica early in its life.”
RLJ’s goal for The Surfing Fox is for it to play the role of “a destination bar that serves food versus a ‘hotel restaurant’ that is typically avoided by locals,” Falgoust said. “So, the bar, and the views and people-watching really set us apart, but our service levels are equally driving our early success.”
The takeaway: stir intrigue
Ultimately, the dining outlets at Zachari Dunes and The Pierside are designed to do what any savvy hotelier in the last decade has attempted: injecting true local color into lodging for business and leisure travelers.
“Creating socially intriguing venues versus traditional restaurants is at the top of the list,” Falgoust said. “Hotels are notorious for producing uninspired offerings and spaces, so awareness and staying far away from those death traps is leading the way to the successful concepts of today. Beverage and social interaction are the winners these days.”
Falgoust’s advice for the many hotel owners and groups trying to introduce restaurants claiming to be ‘local’ is to go beyond lip service to the area’s flavors.
“It is critical to fully experience as many varied venues in the local market as possible,” he said. “It is also critical to assure that ownership and management is engaged in that process, so it is a group effort. And it is always a good idea to look at other hotels, as occasionally there are one or two that actually ‘get it.’ Local, free-standing operations are the best educator.”