Soon after John Clute met Allison, the woman who would become his wife, the two had a conversation. "We kind of knew that we should partner our energies and run a business together," he recalls, "and we asked, 'Should we do something in San Diego, try to raise the bar? Or should we go live in some city where it's already fantastic?' We did a little bit of both. We lived in San Francisco for ten years, and then we came and started our own business down here." That business is Café Chloe, a café and wine bar situated at the corner of Ninth and G — just outside the Gaslamp and close to the heart of the ballpark redevelopment district.
It was the ballpark that brought Clute home. As a teenager, the El Cajon native discovered that he was "attracted to urban environments. I'd hang out in cafés — I've had a love for café life for a long time. Cafés have always meant to me a home away from home. I can tell a friend, 'Come meet me at my café. I've got a favorite table in the corner.' There were a few here and there — Quel Fromage in Hillcrest, and Java, which used to be catty-corner from where we are now." Hanging out in cafés gave way to working in cafés, and that gave way to a career waiting tables in New York and San Francisco. "My background is on the front lines," explains Clute. "I've had no formal training in wine, but I've done a lot of tasting, a lot of talking to people, and a lot of building wine lists with sommeliers. I developed a love of fine dining, of food and wine."
And all the while, he kept an eye on San Diego, "waiting and wondering why this ideal setting for a city had not happened yet. When I saw it start happening, I said, 'Okay, it's time to get down there and be part of the changes. '" And what started things happening was the ballpark. "I knew it was going to be the catalyst for downtown." He'd seen the transformative power of a ballpark before in San Francisco, though he says that there, "It was only one neighborhood that really developed. Here, the ballpark has been a catalyst for what I would call a sweeping growth in the downtown area. I've been following the Centre City Development Corporation website for probably eight years, just watching developers click in, projects come on. Condo projects would sell out before they were built. The W Hotel came on board. It just started to snowball."
So, five years ago, John and Allison bought a condo in San Diego's Marina district, "just based on sketches and drawings." Three years ago they moved in; soon after, their daughter Chloe was born. Together with business partner Tami Ratliffe, they found their location, negotiated a sweet 20-year lease, and started building the dream. "The timing on equity from our respective condos was very good," he says. "We were able to keep pretty much all of the financing in-house. But we knew we were either going to get busy or go down — we spent pretty much all our money on the buildout."
They got busy. "During the buildout" — which transformed the space into an "updated French bistro" with black wood floors, ivory tabletops, and dark brown furniture — "we had a lot of foot traffic going by. A lot of talk in the neighborhood, people in the building saying, 'We can't wait for you to open.' And when we did open, word spread like wildfire. Now, we have people coming in four and five times a week. They're at home; they're not wanting to leave. People like to feel comfortable, they like to feel lifted out of their normal existence and cared for, and they want to consume something that tastes good. The response is remarkable, it's fun, and it's gratifying."
Wine was featured in an effort to stave off the sunset doldrums. "Typically, a café falls asleep after four o'clock in the afternoon. People aren't coming to dinner, and they're done with their coffee-drinking. What can you bring in that will keep the café going? Wine."
It's a fun list — New Zealand and Oregon, Alsace and Spain, Napa and Santa Barbara. Glasses run $6.25-$11.25, bottles $25-$45 (except for the naturally expensive Veuve Cliquot at $17 and $70 — but there's Prosecco for $7 and $28!). Dolcetto and Albarino line up next to Cabernet and Pinot Noir. I recognize the Condes de Valdemar Tempranillo from my own table but confess ignorance concerning the Italian Goldmuskateller.
It's clear that Clute hasn't played to the "give 'em what they want" card, not entirely. He's selling Negro Amaro and Soave by the glass. But he is willing to give 'em what they like — even if they don't know it yet. "I've drunk a lot of wines," he says.
"A lot of really good wines. But I'm not a wine snob. I think my palate is pretty good for the general public. I know what people like. Even if I really like a wine, if I know that people aren't going to like it, I probably won't pick it up. Still, I seek to please myself — there's not a wine on this list that I don't like — and I like wines that are not typical."
How to sell the atypical is a problem faced by many proprietors. Clute seems to have solved it, due perhaps in part to the café life he loves so well. "I think I'm able to bring people up a notch with my taste — it's not overboard, not elitist. I can talk to people about a Spanish Tempranillo, bring them a taste at their table, compare it to another wine they typically drink, and get them to drink it — and they enjoy it! It's a matter of being friendly, of being open, of giving people tastes. Nine times out of ten, they're going to like the wine that's brought to them. The place is so comfortable, it's disarming. But people still have their favorites. They come in and ask for them, and I try to break their habits — 'Come on, try something else, something different. '"