Local restaurateur Trish Watlington and her husband, Tom, will be stepping away from The Red Door and the adjacent BAR by Red Door, their Mission Hills restaurant and bar, by February of next year. The new owner is a Milan, Italy-born chef, Luciano Cibelli, a current Mission Hills resident who has lived in San Diego since 2002 and whose resume boasts 13 years cooking at Pala Casino and a short consulting stint at Seaside Market in Cardiff-by-the-Sea.
The sale, which should be completed by February, comes as the result of a personal decision to shift gears and focus more on food activism and spending more time with her growing family, Watlington says. She will be investing more time and effort into growing Farm to Fork Week (the next one will be from January 14 to 18), remaining active with the National City non-profit Olivewood Gardens and is looking to take on more projects aimed at increasing sustainable food consumption in San Diego County. Watlington will also continue to operate The Red Door farm and plans to leverage her strong ties within the restaurant industry to sell her produce to chefs.
Cibelli is bringing in two chefs from Italy, Alice and Stefano Oliveti, who are longtime friends and will be partners in the restaurant. Cibelli does not anticipate any interruption in service, and plans to spend the next 25 days imbedded with the Red Door team to learn the customer base, the restaurant’s current menu and make small changes along the way until he introduces a new menu. The name will remain the same for now, but he expects to change it within six months. The next door bar’s concept will also remain the same for now and will function as an aperitivo space, serving small plates and cocktails as they do in his native Milan. Cibelli says he will continue to practice The Red Door’s philosophy of sustainable farming and sourcing, something he says is intrinsic to the European culture he grew up eating and cooking in.
“The reason that I like The Red Door is because Trish had been thinking in the same direction I was following since I started cooking,” Cibelli tells Eater. “I do believe in organic produce, in that the product shouldn’t travel days and weeks, that the ingredient to be as close as it can be to the restaurant.”
Cibelli will be sourcing most of his produce, eggs and chickens from a Fallbrook farm called Bella Vista, where he is also working with its Italian owners to produce cheese and a local prosciutto. On the issue of sourcing, he admits that, “Mother Nature is hard. I know that it’s very difficult to 100% source properly but I am going to tell my customers that I will do the best I can.” He adds, “If I cannot get an ingredient responsibly, it will come off the menu before I buy from a company like Sysco or U.S. Foods.”
In the end, Watlington feels good about the future--both hers and the restaurant’s. “I would have been really sad to think all the progress we made in supporting local farms, using what’s here and regional, what we put out there was just going to disappear off the face of the earth if we sold,” she tells Eater. “With Luciano, I know we’re in good hands and it makes this so much more celebration than sad.”