Café Chloe, the well-loved bistro that celebrated ten years in business this past December, is heading into its next era with a new organizational team.
Tami Ratliffe, one of the restaurant's three co-founders, is leaving Café Chloe to pursue other projects. Ratliffe who sold her share to co-owners Alison McGrath and John Clute, whose daughter Chloe is the cafe's namesake, tells Eater that "We have developed the most beloved restaurant in the city so selling was a tough decision. I am happy to have shared in its inception and I appreciate all of the support my friends have given the café over the years. Café Chloe is an institution and I am looking forward to have my first meal as a guest!"
The East Village, European-inspired restaurant also has a new executive chef and pastry chef duo, Devon and Taylor Junkin, who met while working at Bankers Hill's much-missed Laurel Restaurant and recently returned to San Diego after cooking in Chicago.
Eater recently sat down with McGrath, who reflected on the restaurant's history and San Diego's food landscape, then and now.
Q: How did Café Chloe first launch?
A: John and I met 25 years ago at Cafe Japengo as servers. We subsequently moved to San Francisco to hone our skills but we were always keeping an eye on downtown San Diego, waiting for it to grow up. We saw things beginning to develop and saw the time was right to come back, which coincided with the birth of our daughter. Our courtship took place in cafes; we loved their European feel and the egalitarian, accessible quality of cafe life. That really appealed to us.
Q: What about the East Village appealed to you?
A: We did a little research on what was going to happen here and we could see that it was still going to have enough grit to be interesting but that there was a vision for it. There was talk about the new library and the beginnings of the ballpark. It wasn't saturated in the way that the Gaslamp was and it had a different quality to it. We knew there was nothing like this in San Diego and just had complete faith that it would do well.
Q: What was San Diego's restaurant scene like back then?
A: Bleak. At that point, it looked like it would go the way of Vegas, which concerned me. San Diego wanted to grow but they were looking in the wrong direction for a while, it was all bottle service and velvet ropes. But about eight years ago, things started to shift towards more thoughtful, independent restaurants.
Q: What's changed, for the better or worse?
A: The focus on using small farms and increased accessibility to them is just wonderful. I remember our founding chef, Katie Grebow, having trouble connecting with local producers when we first started and then it just exploded. For the worse, I think there's a lot of focus on gimmicks and trends have a short shelf life; maybe that's why we're seeing things open and close so quickly. The focus isn't on longevity, which is not a sustainable thing.
Q: How has the bistro evolved?
A: We've always held to the faithful ideals of being a classic bistro, a tried and true of place. We want to be an institution and be here forever, and serve the kind of food that everybody loves.
Q: What are challenges of being a restaurant owner in San Diego?
A: We haven't stepped into a restaurant culture that already existed, like another major city; all the restaurateurs here are creating our own culture, so there's a certain amount of education that has to happen, including about the prices and portions of things.
There's still a bit of weekend warrior culture here; I'd like to see people coming out more during the week and supporting their favorite places.
Q: What are some things that have contributed to your longevity?
A: I think we understand hospitality. We get what it means to have a favorite place that you consider yours and we really care about creating a total experience. We're constantly looking at details and ways to make things better for our staff and our guests.
Q: How has the menu changed and where is it going?
A: Because of our original chef Katie, we were able to do a lot more than we thought we could do in this tiny kitchen. She really took it to the next level and then we started to play and experiment with things, all while staying in the French tradition. But I think the evolution now is taking us back to the classics, back home again to what we care about and love. The food, the look of the menu, even the wine list, is evolving into more of a traditional French bistro; there are now oysters, steak tartare, cassoulet — we're keeping and refining favorites like the bistro salad and the macaroni and cheese, but eventually 90% of the menu should be new.