502 Santa Monica Blvd
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Yelp: 4.5 stars
Interview Date: Thursday, June 17, 2010
From a young age, Raphael Lunetta, owner of JiRaffe in Santa Monica, loved going out to eat. “Going to a restaurant seemed like a special treat,” says Raphael. A Santa Monica native, his two passions are surfing and enjoying eating. “If it’s not good, I won’t eat it, but when it’s good food, I want to taste everything, order everything,” he says.
Part of his passion for good food comes from traveling to France most summers from the time he was seven years old. His French mother would send him to stay with his aunt, who was an incredible cook living on the Spanish border of France. “We ate true French Provencal food,” says Raphael. “And there was a charming fishing village with restaurants, coffee shops, desserts … all of those images are what I associate with pleasure and enjoyment.” As an aside, Raphael told me that he even loved eating the food on his Air France flights!
Raphael had his first restaurant job (as a busboy) in the eighth grade. “Dad was upset – he wanted me to focus only on school,” says Raphael. At heart, however, Raphael’s father could understand the passion for restaurants, as his own father (Raphael’s grandfather) was in the restaurant business. In high school, Raphael and his best friend Josiah Citrin would sell their records so that they could go out to dinner together. As a competitive surfer beginning in Junior High, Raphael focused on surfing and working at restaurants to support himself and to eat really good food. In fact, at that point in the interview, Raphael started talking about the quality of the staff meals at restaurants, and then he jumped up and brought me a sample of what his staff ate for lunch that day. It was delicious!
Upon graduation from Santa Monica High School, Raphael headed to Hawaii to surf, while Josiah went to France to work in restaurants. During Josiah’s breaks, they would travel through Europe together, surfing. In 1987, Josiah asked Raphael why he didn’t stay in Europe and work there so that eventually they could pursue their dream of opening a restaurant together. It seemed like a good time, so Raphael stayed and ended up working in restaurants around Europe. “At the time, the restaurant business was not very glamorous,” says Raphael – referencing the fact that today celebrity chefs have elevated the profession. “Also, it is a very difficult business, but also very rewarding.”
In 1988 Raphael came back to Santa Monica and worked at the Broadway Deli, where he was responsible for all operations and purchasing. At 24 years old, it was a big learning opportunity for him. “It was good, but hard,” he says. “It felt like a big sacrifice at the time, but well worth the effort.” Josiah was working at Patina, and Raphael decided to join him there. “The lesson at Patina was that if you work hard, you will be successful,” says Raphael. “I learned a lot about running a restaurant there.”
After two years at Patina, Raphael and Josiah worked together on the opening team of a restaurant named Capri on Abbot Kinney in Venice. “We made very little money, but after eight months we got a little bit of buzz, and there was a line out the door,” says Raphael. The pair had an opportunity to work with Alan Jackson, and became co-chefs at Jackson’s Restaurant, and later Jackson’s Farm. After several years, the pair became excited about owning their own restaurant again.
“We were looking for locations and found this one,” says Raphael of the current location of JiRaffe. “It had been damaged in the earthquake and smelled like an Indian restaurant, but we negotiated a deal – with no money in the bank – and the landlord took a chance on us.” JiRaffe has evolved into an intimate bistro, and it gets high rankings for both service and food quality. Josiah sold his share to Rapahel and opened Melisse on Wilshire Blvd., but the two re-joined to create Lemon Moon on Olympic Blvd. “We do very well both together and separately,” says Raphael. Both have come a long way from selling their records in order to enjoy a meal out!