Quick Take:

It took forever to get David Kinch’s latest creation, his hometown creation, to the starting line. Then a pandemic hit. Takeout and outdoor’s ‘Little Beach’ provided a stop gap. Now, one year later, the grand debut of Mentone’s properly curated indoor experience lies only a few short weeks ahead.

Think back to a year ago and that feeling of mourning we were all perpetually stuck in, one thing after the next being cancelled due to shelter-in-place restrictions.

Weddings, summer vacations, parties, even just simple appointments — we were forced to let go of the things we were anticipating. For me personally, that brought a sense of grief.

One of those events that I had to wave goodbye to, along with so many others: Mentone’s soft opening. The highly anticipated restaurant, crafted with momentous care and intention by Michelen-starred Chef David Kinch, was finally going to open here on our home turf.

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Those crazy-tempting Mentone (Men-tone-EH) Instagram posts of pizza and pasta that would be for real in our grubby little mitts so very soon had become almost unbearable to see. And my email invitation to the soft opening sat there, bedazzled with a red star, in anticipation.

“We were one week away,” says general manager Chris Sullivan. Obviously for him and Kinch and the whole Mentone staff, their grief at having to pivot to a whole new reality was a bit more significant than my own selfish desire for a Negroni at the bar.

Luckily, they all re-envisioned how to open with a simpler menu in a takeout only format. “Pizza is perfect for that,” says Sullivan. And then “Little Beach” launched, an oasis in the Mentone parking lot that was born from an outdoor seating brainstorm session at a manager meeting.

'Little Beach' has served its purpose.
‘Little Beach’ has served its purpose. Credit: Crystal Birns/For Lookout Santa Cruz

They figured that a few picnic tables and an easy-up out in the parking lot would be the first steps to take them into this new configuration. “Someone said, ‘If we can get a month out of this easy-up, it will be great. It lasted eight,” reflects Sullivan. That outdoor space that seats 65 people is really what kept Mentone open this whole year, and he says that it’s gone through a lot of iterations.

For a location that was just a shell when they first looked at it in 2017, to getting the sacred Mugnaini pizza oven delivered in July 2017, to the whole design and buildout over the next three years, to getting the final inspection at the beginning of March 2020, the let down of never having a single customer actually sit inside the restaurant has been hard to chew for so long.

It has been “one of the world’s longest soft openings,” reflects Sullivan. “We had our first anniversary last week and are still serving in a parking lot … we’ve had to flex muscles we didn’t know we had. We constantly have to change systems.” Also, the fact that we are ordering food of this caliber at a counter, wine and all, is “kind of unorthodox,” says Sullivan, leading to a lot of running around and service conundrums that we might not be that aware of as a patron.

But ultimately, “The customers are very grateful, they really care. We thought about every single detail, from the color of the building to the designs on the napkins, and we are still constantly asking ourselves, ‘How can we make this experience better?’ Sullivan says. “It’s been a lot of work, but it’s like, if we can do this we can do anything.”

If you go …

How to munch at Mentone

Mentone is planning a real opening — one that never occurred because of the COVID-19 pandemic — in late May. Keep an eye out for developments on its website. Other details:

• The restaurant is at 174 Aptos Village Way in Aptos.

• Current hours (outdoor dining only, first come, first served) are Wednesday through Saturday, 4-8 p.m., and Sunday, from noon-6 p.m.

• For takeout information, click here.

And — pardon my unbridled excitement — the wait to get inside is almost finally over!

Which is excellent news to someone who has been itching to sit at that bar and sip on that Negroni for as long as I have.

Sullivan says a real Mentone opening is coming in about three weeks. “The last week of the month” of May, he said. “ Hours will most likely be slightly expanded, and all tables will be reservable (bar still open for walk-ups). Outdoor dining will pause when this takes place.”

GM Chris Sullivan
GM Chris Sullivan Credit: Crystal Birns/For Lookout Santa Cruz

Sure, getting enough help to add that much capacity is challenging. But Sullivan says they also want it to feel like “a new Mentone experience, not just Little Beach, but inside.”

There will be some new menu items, more pasta, and a whole charcuterie program of custom blends that they have not revealed yet because the aesthetic of this is definitely more suitable for indoor dining, as the eye-catching retro meat slicer in the dining room is something to behold.

The talented bar team is just waiting for people to sidle up and order something fancy. The equally experienced kitchen staff has been waiting to showcase skills that few nibbling pizza out at a picnic bench could be aware of. There is beautiful dinnerware and glassware, yearning to be used. The entire restaurant space alone is meant to be experienced. It was built for people to be in.

Also on tap for the near future is a Mentone catering program for private events. Central in these plans is a mobile pizza oven from the landmark Mugnaini in Healdsburg as well as a mobile bar car, retrofitted to have cocktails and beer on tap so they can take it offsite to various events, festivals and maybe some pop-up happenings.

The Mugnaini pizza oven does the trick at Mentone.
The Mugnaini pizza oven does the trick at Mentone. Credit: Crystal Birns/For Lookout Santa Cruz

This will hopefully be finished by summertime. Sullivan says, “You’ll see that thing putting around town, maybe you’ll want to follow us and see where we’re going.”

Before then though, where we’re going is simple: Inside the long-awaited Mentone. And soon. My Negroni wait is almost over.

Follow Amber Turpin on: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. Amber Selene Turpin is a freelance food and travel writer based in the Santa Cruz Mountains. She is a regular contributor to The Mercury News and Edible...