Claudette Zepeda’s Cliffside Restaurant Is a Giant Love Letter to San Diego

Don’t visit Encinitas without a trip to Vaga.

VAGA at Alila Marea

Courtesy of Alila Marea

One of the best restaurants in Southern California is arguably the most scenic.

At Vaga, the cliffside Encinitas restaurant located inside Alila Marea Beach, founding chef Claudette Zepeda writes a love letter to her hometown, San Diego.

Deeply personal dishes like birria clams, Baja caesar, hoja santa griddled cheese, and perfectly balanced crudos spotlight ingredients and traditions drawn from the surrounding landscape and her growing collection of culinary influences. And it’s a tapestry of flavors as Zepeda, who was born in San Diego, spent much of her childhood in nearby Tijuana, which she still visits regularly with a quick drive across the border. 

Vaga is lovingly named after the tight-knit family of “vagas” and “vagos” that Zepeda leads, with executive chef Ananda Bareño running the kitchen since 2022. It's the flagship restaurant of the relatively new Alila Marea Beach Resort, which is dramatically perched above surfer-speckled Pacific Ocean, and the vistas set the tone for a meal that is just as sweeping and energetic.

The food plays with the culinary influences that converge so beautifully in San Diego, and even the plates have something to say about this exact patch of California: Zepeda sources her gorgeous pink plates and bowls from local Encinitas potter Mike Totah of The Wheel Stoneware, who has seen demand grow exponentially since the restaurant opened. People kept asking her, “Where did you get those dishes?” 

Zepeda, who still calls San Diego home (though travels endlessly), remains deeply inspired by her hometown because it’s still “able to feel small in its vastness,” she says. 

Claudette Zepeda

Kimberly Motos

I tasted that exact, “small-vast” sensibility on a recent visit, starting with the bracingly fresh crudo of local fish, prepared with bright pomegranate, lime, and earthy-sweet beets, paired with a sublime glass of Tresomm “Grignolino Rosé” from Valle de Guadalupe. (The tasting menu at the time of my visit highlighted wines from all BIPOC makers, including several incredible Mexican wines from small producers, and the regular wine menu is committed to amplifying Mexican winemakers.) 

“There's a corner of town that has what you are looking for at any given moment,” Zepeda shares of her home city. “Fresh and delicious dosas next to an independent Indian grocery store — that helps inspire me.” 

Another source of inspiration? “People-watching while drinking a coffee in Ocean Beach while at the farmers’ market,” she says. “There’s an ease to San Diego that helps dictate how I envision the food at Vaga. It’s thoughtful without feeling forced.”

The clarity of Zepeda’s vision is why the hard-to-please locals have come to, perhaps begrudgingly, love Vaga. And her favorite dish on the menu happens to be mine too – the sweet seared scallops “paired with acidity, crunch and a creamy vegetable.” For my tasting the scallops sat atop celery root purée, with Vaga-made chili crisp, pickled butter beans, and ribbons of fennel and celery ribbons. The pairing, a fresh and punchy 2020 Bruma Chardonnay Valle de San Vicente, Mexico, was perfect. 

VAGA at Alila Marea

Courtesy of Alila Marea

The following course, “water and roots,” was peak Zepeda: a dazzling composition of watercress, celery root, sunchoke, and whipped green goddess dressing “with ancestral herbs.” 

“I’m a fork-and-knife salad girl,” Zepeda says as she puts the plate down. “I can’t do mixed greens.” 

Most recently, Zepeda garnered national acclaim (and love from Food & Wine) for her stint as executive chef and partner behind El Jardín, and she’s also competed on Top Chef Season 15 and Top Chef Mexico. But Zepeda is always looking ahead to what's next. Later this year, Alila Marea Beach will announce a series of quarterly, ticketed Moon Dinners, which will “celebrate the changing of the seasons through the solstices and equinoxes,” Zepeda says. “And there will be lots more wine dinners focused on BIPOC producers and guest chefs.”

Though this isn’t the only spot you can try Zepeda’s award-winning food. She also oversees all of the food and beverage outlets at Alila Marea Beach, including at the laid-back, oceanside surfers’ haunt known as The Pocket, decorated with actual surf boards (think SoCal-vibed bites like fish tacos and excellent mezcal cocktails) and at Coffee Box café, which serves coffee from beloved Encinitas coffee roaster Lofty Coffee Co. That way, you can make your entire San Diego getaway a locals-only affair. 

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