The sturdiest, prettiest canary has been found dead in the coal mine. This is not good news for the other canaries.
The canary is Cafe Chloe, the charming as hell French bistro that, for 14 years, brought sophistication and sex appeal and steak frites to East Village. When no one wanted to open up in that neighborhood because of crime, owners Jon Clute and Alison McGrath, plus former partner Tami Ratliffe, took the risk.
And they did so amazingly. They helped rejuvenate a vital part of downtown. Every food lover seemed to have Chloe on their list of "best restaurants in San Diego" year after year, myself included. Jon and Alison (and Tami) are the kind of stylish aesthetes that cities like San Francisco seem to curate. If they sold buckets, they would be the most attractive buckets.
They announced on their Facebook page that July 8 will be their final day of service at Chloe. They’re only interested in producing a great product, and the numbers just don’t work out anymore. In their post, they cite recent changes in the restaurant industry. The change they’re referring to is one I’ve written about heavily in the past—California’s asinine, if not criminal, refusal to count tips as income as they raise the minimum wage to $15. Forty-three states have some sort of tip credit. California does not, and its killing restaurants like Chloe.
"The fact that California has no tip credit makes it almost impossible," Alison says. "We never wanted to raise our prices so people couldn’t come here. It’s a friendly little cafe. We never wanted to compromise on labor. We wanted to pay our kitchen people as much as possible. We weren’t willing to give up Specialty Produce. Something’s got to give."
And so they gave their livelihood, and San Diego gave a bit of its soul.
McGrath says numbers were down a little bit. They also couldn’t get a liquor license, since East Village was considered a high crime area when they opened. Plus, they didn’t have the space in the tiny bistro for the booze. Booze is the main revenue-generator keeping the full-service restaurant industry alive right now.
"Every year new restaurants open, numbers go down," she says. "But the reviews and ratings were always 4.5 to 5 stars. That never changed. People have been calling with all kinds of ideas on how to save us. The most painful line to hear is ‘Oh Cafe Chloe is my favorite restaurant—I haven’t been there in years!’ The last few years we’ve just been staying open for the community. We did this for the community, it’s a community we helped build. But now we have to be a little more pragmatic."
To deal with California’s refusal to count tips as wages, some restaurants are adding a service charge to checks. It’s controversial. Some don’t like it, including McGrath. "We just couldn’t. It felt creepy. Whenever I see it on menus, it just feels wrong. It makes total sense, but we couldn’t embrace it."
Asked of her favorite memories, McGrath says first that her daughter, Chloe, grew up in the cafe. "When we were thinking of opening, we read a book written in the voice of Fanny, Alice Waters’ daughter, about growing up Chez Panisse. That’s what we wanted. Or the first time I saw a pretty young woman sitting here reading Walt Whitman, I thought ‘oh my god.’ Or the man who takes his grandmother and his girlfriend here all the time. On Valentine’s Day, every course comes with poetry, and there’s a mother and daughter who come every year and read the poetry to each other."
McGrath says they are not done with the restaurant industry. For now, they’re keeping their Minou Creperie open for private events, but may reconcept it. I tell her what I’ve heard from other restaurateurs, that in order to survive in the face of California’s lack of tip credit, they’re getting rid of servers and moving toward a counter-service model. Does she see that as the future?
"Oh, definitely. The mom and pops won’t be able to survive without a liquor license. It’s a shame. It changes the whole climate of hospitality and the city. Just when San Diego was changing and becoming a great spot for small, local restaurants."
We commiserate on the cruel part of California’s policy—the fact that the state won’t let restaurateurs count tips as wages, and yet still tax the restaurants on those tips.
"Oh, and here’s a new one," she adds. "They tax you on comps now—the food we gave away to our staff for meals and as a thanks to regular customers. They taxed us $70,000 on that last year. We just put in a new grease trap last year and the city just came through and said you need a new one. It’s so over-regulated. I always say it’s like sitting on a bale of hay with an open flame, or a chair perched on the edge of a cliff."
Jon and Alison are also working on the Liberty Station concept, Scout at Chloe. "We’re working on a huge project that’ll have some of the elements of Chloe but will be more sustainable," she says.
As for the 25 employees under her care, she’s been urging local restaurateurs who need good help to email her. "They’re the best of the best, and we want to help place people."
Cafe Chloe will remain open until July 8 so that they can say goodbye to longtime regulars and the neighborhood. Reservations are filling up.
Good night, Chloe.