Chef Raphael Lunetta, formerly of JiRaffe, is painstakingly crafting new flavors for the venerable Georgian Hotel

By Jessica Koslow

Chef Raphael Lunetta sets a new table for The Georgian Hotel

Chef Raphael Lunetta sets a new table for The Georgian Hotel Photo by Ximena Kupferwasser

As Raphael Lunetta stands on the veranda of The Georgian Hotel on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica, he sees heaps of possibility. For the past six months, Lunetta has been the consulting chef for the historic 83-year-old art-deco property — helping to update everything from the menus to the silverware.

This is Lunetta’s first public project since his own JiRaffe closed in Santa Monica after an amazing 18-year run. He has future plans for a new restaurant at 2424 Pico Blvd., once the home of Josie, but on most days — like this sunny Saturday morning — he’s all in at The Georgian.

“When you take on something like this, it’s a hotel,” Lunetta starts, “you have be able to accommodate the guests’ needs and exist in that environment. But I also want to apply some of the style of cutting-edge boutique hotels. I also don’t want to strong-arm people into working one way. When you force something too much, your result is feeling like it’s forced. Everything takes time.”

Lunetta is taking his time with The Georgian’s transformation. He calls it the hotel’s “developmental phase.” He’s working with the chefs, whom he compliments again and again, to encourage them to come up with their own ideas. One longtime chef suggested fire-roasted tomato salsa for the guacamole and chips, and it’s a big hit. Lunetta has also been encouraging roasting the shitake mushrooms for the filet of beef and creating homemade vinaigrettes for the salads and sandwiches.

When Georgian GM Juan Viramontes hired Lunetta as consulting chef, he was already a fan of JiRaffe. Plus, they had worked together before at a private event in the hotel’s speakeasy downstairs.

Viramontes knew Lunetta was the right man for this job: He was a local — Lunetta attended Washington Elementary, John Adams Middle School and Santa Monica High School — and a celebrated chef who could lend his guidance, vision and, best of all, an authentic touch to The Georgian’s modernization.

“This area — Santa Monica, Venice, the Boardwalk — is changing rapidly,” Lunetta says. “It’s not about bringing tour buses here. It’s about trying to create a nice experience in Santa Monica. If I can keep some authentic individuality here, that’s what I want to do.”

Lunetta also wants to make The Georgian more appealing to locals.

“I want this to be a very comfortable place for the community: wine, a view, steamed clams and mussels,” he says. “That’s the evolution  of where I want it to go.”

The main hotel lobby has plans for renovation and will feature a whiskey bar with cappuccino machine.

Dining on the veranda of The Georgian is lovely any time of the day. It’s one of the highlights of The Georgian experience. And now, little by little, Lunetta is adding his take on Coastal California cuisine to the menus, like his chicken sandwich from JiRaffe. The menus didn’t change overnight — a dish here, a plate there.

Lunetta’s love of food is obvious as he describes his dishes in detail. His sentences are chock-full of ingredients: basil, shallots, fresh lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, butter, aromatic broth. You can almost visualize him, deep in concentration, behind the stove.

On a tour of his kitchen, his knowledge of food and its preparation is on full display as he explains each ingredient and technique.

A new standout on the breakfast menu is Ojos Rojos: two sunny side up eggs, grilled eggplant, fresh mozzarella and chunky heirloom tomato sauce — and be sure to add cherry-wood smoked bacon. Then there’s the herb chicken and cheese omelet with poached Jidori chicken breast, fresh mozzarella, goat cheese, asparagus, tomatoes and herbs.

Since Lunetta’s arrival, The Georgian has expanded its lunch menu and now serves dinner.

For the majority of his life, Lunetta has lived and worked in Venice and Santa Monica. And he’s had his eye on The Georgian since he first stepped foot in there years ago. This opportunity to help make the hotel a dining destination feels like the perfect fit for him.

“This patio, the view, the menu, the speakeasy: It has such incredible potential,” says Lunetta. “It’s not going to happen in six weeks. I want to take the time to develop it, grow it.”

“This is not JiRaffe moved down to The Georgian,” Lunetta assures. “This is a Georgian experience that’s evolving and will continue to evolve.”

The Georgian Hotel, 1415 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica (310) 395-9945