Stu Dickson has landed in a new kind of paradise. After 15 years in senior management positions with Tommy Bahama Tropical Cafés (plus 20 additional years in the restaurant business), the new owner of Café Café (500 Sandoval St. 466-1391) sounds positively giddy about entering what he calls his “first rodeo.”
“This is the first time I’ve owned my own restaurant,” explains Dickson, while grabbing a quick bowl of bisque in between shifts. “I’ve wanted my own place since I was 21 years old. Having it is everything I imagined and more.” Dickson bought Café Café from former owners Kirstin Griffin and Donalee Goodbrod, who moved to the East Coast in June. He comes from Florida and cut his teeth on managing tropical menus and venues, but the man is obviously wooed by the mood of Santa Fe.
“I plan to fuse the restaurant’s Italian side with some Southwestern flavors,” he explains. I’d like it to be known as a Southwestern/Italian grill.”
Regulars to Café Café had come to count on Griffin and Goodbrod’s reliable Italian trattoria-type standards: mega meatballs over linguine afloat in the house marinara sauce ($18), breaded eggplant parmesan ($17), a garlicky Caesar salad ($4.50 small; $9 large) and the crisp crusted pizzas for which Goodbrod developed a cult following back in her early days tossing pies at the Paramount. The good news is that many of the women’s bestsellers remain on the menu. Some, like the Caesar salad, Dickson will tweak ever so slightly.
The entire kitchen staff has stayed on board, he notes, and they still cut fresh ravioli; roll meatballs and cannoli; and craft house-made gelato and spumoni each morning. They also continue to turn out a mean pizza—bubbly and crisp at the outer edges but gooey and still eat-it-out-of-hand foldable in the middle.
I ordered the 16” pie layered with diced Canadian bacon, black olives, artichoke hearts and mushrooms, and was glad I could still call it my go-to pizza for those call-in and quick takeout nights. If only they delivered! The fresh linguine with white clams ($19) comes studded with steamed open shells and plenty of chewy little mollusks, all swirled in a clear, bright sauce dotted with fresh parsley and lemon. It lightens up the hefty swirl of pasta and makes the carb indulgence seem guilt-free.
New entries on the menu that mix the Italian and Southwestern themes include tortilla soup and a soon-to-be-unveiled buffalo green chile lasagna. And one day’s blackboard special paired linguine with chicken in a green chile mushroom cream sauce ($12).
Like the menu, Café Café’s interior has undergone a subtle facelift. New art—huge gilded acrylic bouquets on canvas—by Dickson’s wife and Canyon Road gallery owner Dominique Boisjoli—hangs on walls emboldened by a fresh coat of candy-apple red paint.
The outdoors have also been spruced up, with new planters and a colorful totem holding court at the center of the patio. Plus, in the hopes of creating a more happening al fresco dining scene in the neighborhood, Dickson has booked traditional Latin jazz combo Los Primos to share the spotlight each weekend with his updated menu and décor.