Sal Zavala’s career began at 15. Initially a dishwasher, he climbed the kitchen ladder and became a cook. Now, Zavala owns various restaurants in the Santa Cruz area. He bought Empire Grille about a year ago; Zavala liked the small-town feel, and it was already a local favorite. He says it’s “where everyone hangs out.” Old-school Felton photographs punctuate the ambiance, and the menu is traditional American with some formal dishes and more evolution to come.
Lunch favorites include burgers, Reubens and the popular crab, shrimp, avocado, and salads like the Asian Chicken with a sweet sesame dressing. For dinner, must-orders include the salmon with lemon, butter, garlic, white wine and bay shrimp, the Mahi-mahi in a sweet chili sauce and the grilled New York strip. Dessert is highlighted by bread pudding with blueberry and white chocolate options. Empire is open every day, 11am-9pm (8pm Sunday). Zavala recently detailed his vision for Empire’s menu and the key to his rise to successful restauranteur.
Do you have plans for Empire’s cuisine moving forward?
SAL ZAVALA: We are keeping all the favorites, but I also want to try and bring in more California cuisine. I want to elevate our food, keeping the house specialties and locally caught seafood like sand dabs, rock cod, Dungeness crab, and whatever is seasonal. I want to offer more healthy options and vegan and vegetarian choices as well.
How did you go from dishwasher to restaurant owner?
I’ve been working in the restaurant business since 1989. Sometimes I would work 150 hours every two weeks, and I still have my pay stubs. I’ve been working my butt off for many years, shifts from 7am until 2am and again the next day. It took a lot of hard work and sacrifice, and most of my purpose was to provide for my children.
Empire Grille, 6155 Hwy 9, Felton, 831-704-2130.