By Emily G. Peters
Until the last decade, Croatia has largely flown under the radar in popular culture. And while California boasts one of the more significant Croatian American populations in the United States, its cuisine also remains lesser known—that is, except to those who have dined at Cafe LuMar in Monrovia.
The inconspicuous cafe is hidden on an offshoot of Myrtle Avenue in Old Town Monrovia, luring passersby with a few bistro tables and the red-and-white checks of the Croatian flag. The cafe is run by Dragica Grabovac Giardina, churning out what she refers to as Croatian comfort food for regulars and newcomers alike.
“My menu is about food I grew up with,” said Giardina, who named the cafe after her children Lucia (Lu) and Mario (Mar). “I cook these same items at my own home—and I love them so much that I wanted to share it all with others.”
As it turns out, Giardina’s home cooking is a particularly singular experience. Cafe LuMar is one of the few—if not the only—Croatian restaurants in all of Los Angeles.
“Some of the food I serve is hard to find elsewhere—or at least not as good as it is at Cafe LuMar,” Giardina joked. “We feature all kinds of European specialties, and cook like you’re sitting at my kitchen table. All fresh ingredients and everything from scratch, no artificial flavorings.”
Diners will find some familiar items on the menu, like Giardina’s crepes (Croatian palačinke); some filled with sautéed shrimp and a creamy white wine sauce, others with cream cheese and flambéed berries. Yet, for newcomers, Giardina has some standout recommendations.
“Our stuffed cabbage leaves, award-winning goulash and beef stroganoff are must-trys,” she said. “I also encourage customers to try our Croatian beer and wine, as well as our ‘LuMar coffee’—influenced by Turkey and Eastern Europe.”
As the sole bastion of Croatian cuisine in the area, Cafe LuMar has developed a loyal following—along with its neighboring sister restaurant, La Adelita, also owned by Giardina and her family. And unlike chain restaurants who tend to stick to fixed menus, Giardina loves the flexibility of offering whatever’s freshest and tastiest—ideal for venturesome eaters.
“My patrons are people that love to try different food; people that grew up in Europe and remember some of the foods that they ate when they lived there or those that just love the relaxing atmosphere of European restaurants,” she said, praising her customers for their support. “I chose to open in Monrovia as I love the beauty and a feel of a small community—and my hope is to see Cafe LuMar grow and become one of the best specialty restaurants, not only in Monrovia, but in the surrounding areas, too.”