If only the Casa Vega walls could talk. They’ve seen the likes of every celebrity from Cary Grant and Marlon Brando to Cameron Diaz in the hidden booths, along with Brad Pitt with Leonardo DeCaprio drowning their sorrows in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Then came the pandemic-induced silence that claimed its owner, Ray Vega, in January of this year.
Through it all, his daughter Christy Vega has powered on the family legacy, culminating in a party this week celebrating the historic restaurant’s 65th birthday in Sherman Oaks with her mother Charleen at her side. Rossoblu owner Steve Samson and Otium’s Tim Hollingsworth were also on hand for the festivities.
“This anniversary means the world to me,” Vega told L.A. Weekly as family and close friends, including Foo Fighters Dave Grohl, flowed into the patio party. “It’s sweet and it’s bittersweet. It’s our 65th anniversary this year and nine days in I lost my father to Covid during the second lockdown. But we made it and just to be here today is a testament to the Los Angeles community that made sure we survived. We’re a little family, there’s no equity group, investors or partners behind us. Casa Vega has its own heartbeat. It’s the passion that my father instilled in me to carry on and let me tell you, there’s nothing more motivating than when your name’s on the side of the building. There was no way I was going to let this place go down on my watch.”
That family legacy started in Tijuana, Mexico when Rafael, Sr. and Maria Vega worked at the Aqua Caliente resort. In the 1930s, with a loan from his brother, Rafael Sr., Maria and son Ray immigrated to the United States with dreams of owning a Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles. Rafael and Maria opened the Cafe Caliente dinner and dance club on Olvera Street in the 1930s. At age 22, following in his family’s footsteps, the junior Ray brought the family recipes from Cafe Caliente to Casa Vega on Ventura Blvd in 1956 with the help of his parents and aunt Francis.
Vega passed his dedication of philanthropy on to daughter Christy, who while struggling through the pandemic, worked closely with No Us Without You and Grohl through other programs to help feed the community. Ray served as the commissioner of the Los Angeles Department of Public Social Services as well as chairman of the L.A. County Housing Authority in past years. The evening included a charity bingo tournament that raised funds for No Us Without You.“My dad really instilled the act of charity into me,” Vega told the crowd of family and long-time customers, some that have had a place at the bar since the 1970s. “He was so dedicated to the immigrant community and the invisible people that nobody wants to see. He truly believed that the best thing that could happen to the United States were immigrants because they brought love and joy to the country. He also taught me when life is kicking you in the ass – help people. Take that energy of pain and sorrow and flip it into good.”