Lemon Grove restaurateur toasts to a brighter future with new Zest Wine Bistro
Giardino Neighborhood Cucina owner Karina Kravalis recently opened a wine bar next door to expand East County city’s culinary scene
From the time Karina Kravalis opened her popular Giardino Neighborhood Cucina restaurant in Lemon Grove in November 2017, she noticed growing demand from customers for more choices on the Italian restaurant’s wine list and strong ticket sales for its monthly wine dinners.
So when a neighboring hair salon went out of business during the pandemic, Kravalis thought there might be enough local demand for a wine bar business next door. She was right. Since Kravalis opened Zest Wine Bar in January, business has been building every month. Zest seats 61 people, including 40 on the new back patio.
Open afternoons and evenings Wednesdays through Sundays, Zest offers 30 wines by the glass and nearly 80 wines by the bottle. It also offers an international tapas-style light bites menu of salads, appetizers, seafood, cheese and charcuterie plates that pair well with the wine.
Managed by certified sommelier Roberto Avila, Zest also offers wine tasting events on the last Sunday of every month. In addition, Zest has a monthly English-style tea service on the third Saturday of each month, with sweet pastries from Knead bakery and savory sandwiches and bites from Zest.
Kravalis lives in Lemon Grove, just five minutes from Giardino and Zest, and said she’s proud to expand the culinary offerings in her city.
“I love Lemon Grove,” she said. “There are so many wonderful people living here, and it’s a very-up-and-coming neighborhood. I really believe in this area.”
Kravalis had a background of more than 10 years in San Diego’s hotel and restaurant industries before she opened Giardino with her now ex-husband. They split before the pandemic began. Kravalis said the divorce was very difficult, but it toughened her up for the struggles she was soon to face.
“The personal challenges of my divorce were very dramatic. When you survive something like that, you can survive anything,” she said. “When the pandemic came, it was a shock, but I recuperated fast and I fought for this restaurant so hard. I knew I would not let it close.”
During the first year of the pandemic, Kravalis built an 80-seat front patio for Giardino and created a takeout and delivery program that included bake-at-home pizzas. The community supported Giardino, and Kravalis said she didn’t have to lay off a single employee.
The second year of the pandemic brought new challenges due to the shortage of restaurant workers. Customer demand was there, she said, but she was operating with just 30 percent of the staff she’d employed pre-pandemic.
“We had a skeleton crew, but we got used to being very efficient. We survived it well and came out of it on a very good note,” she said. “I’m trying to look at all the good things that happened to us rather than the bad, and I’m happy we’re past all the troubles.”
Zest Wine Bistro is one of those good things she’s focusing on.
Zest serves a mix of wines from California, Italy, France, Australia, Portugal, Spain and more. Avila is also in talks with a distributor to bring in wines from the Valle de Guadalupe in Baja. The wine list focuses on family-owned and boutique wineries whose products can’t be found in supermarkets. Zest has also launched its own wine club program with member benefits and, so far, 30 people have signed up.
The next wine-tasting event, at 4 p.m. May 29, will focus on the wines of California’s Paso Robles region. The event features a flight of four wines, and a charcuterie and bites board, for $39. Zest is also planning to host a special Mother’s Day tea service at 11 a.m. May 8 for $49. Events can be booked at toasttab.com/zestwinebistro/v3.
Zest Wine Bistro
Hours: 4 to 10 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays. 1 to 9 p.m. Sundays
Where: 8129 Broadway, Lemon Grove
Phone: (619) 303-3934
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