“People, memories and food – that’s what we are interested in.”
Seven years ago, Oscar Cabezas was newly arrived in Walnut Creek, an experienced chef from Catalonia, ready to start on a new adventure. He had learned those three ingredients for a successful restaurant recipe, but he learned them in Catalonian, not English, and executed them in Spain, not the United States.
But Cabezas was undaunted. “I’ve always been a curious person,” he says. “I can’t live in a comfort zone for a long time.”
Still, Cabezas just didn’t hop on a plane to SFO, take BART to Walnut Creek and plant a flag in the promised land – he had some help from local restaurateur and real estate investor Brian Hirahara.
“Lynn and I went to Barcelona on our honeymoon,” Hirahara says, “and we loved tapas.”
At the same time, the three-story building on the corner of Mt. Diablo Boulevard and North Main was just about ready to open its doors. “We were three years into construction,” Hirahara says, “and we didn’t have a tenant.”
Enter Cabezas, who was working the Teleferic in Barcelona after a career as a chef that had taken him all over Spain and included a stop at Michelin three-star restaurant Arzak.
“Cooking was my passion when I was a kid,” says Cabezas, and that passion runs deep in his family. Half his relatives live in France because they fought against Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. “They’re passionate, romantic people,” he says, and during youthful summers in the south of France he “drank a lot of wine and sat around the table singing for hours.”
But of course they also ate, and ate well, reflecting a distinctive Catalan attitude. “Our culture is about food and drink,” he says, “not drink and food. If you’re drinking, you’re eating too.”
That philosophy inspired Teleferic Barcelona, which opened in 2016 on the second floor of Hirahara’s building.
“There was definitely some risk,” says Hirahara of bringing someone from Spain to open a restaurant based on an unfamiliar cuisine and concept. “You just never know.”
To say that it all worked out would be a bit of an understatement. Xavi and Maria Padrosa, the owners, and Cabezas just opened the fourth California Teleferic in Los Angeles, but Walnut Creek remains special.
“It’s the cathedral,” says Cabezas. “Walnut Creek creates the vibe.”
One reason it keeps the vibe is that Cabezas lives in Walnut Creek, just a few blocks away, and can usually be found drinking his morning coffee there to start his day. Of course that day may include trips to the other Teleferics in Palo Alto and Los Gatos, and there’s always a summer sojourn to the two restaurants in Catalonia, but Walnut Creek is the heart of the growing Teleferic empire.
After a recent remodel, though, is does have a new look. The ceilings are a little higher, the colors are a little more muted, but the menu is still filled with dishes that combine Catalan cooking, California cuisine and a sense of fun and exploration.
For example, when diners first arrived at Teleferic, they didn’t really discriminate between the Spanish menu and the more familiar Mexican offerings – so they wanted tacos. Cabezas had never had tacos on a menu before, but he didn’t want to just throw some spiced beef in a tortilla and call it a taco. Instead, he created taquitos de tuna, which is still on the menu, and still one of the most popular dishes.
Of course there’s Spanish ham – jamon, to be precise – fine Spanish wines and a carefully honed menu that’s shifted over the years. “It took a long time to find our own identity,” says Cabezas, but ironically, the California Teleferics are more traditionally Catalonian than the two in northern Spain.
All of the restaurants, though, share the same philosophy. “I am drawn to the idea of community,” says Cabezas, “and I believe food and drink pull us together.”
Hirahara has watched that idea blossom and spread since he brought Cabezas and the Padrosas over from Spain. “They have a family feeling,” he says. “It’s a festive European environment.”
So are there more Teleferics on the horizon? Will more communities host that festive environment?
“We are still making new friends,” says Cabezas, so he’s not ruling anything out. “Only time will tell us when to stop.”