“It is every chef’s dream to have his own kitchen,” says Jean-Pierre (J.P.) Knaggs. “My wife, Shay, and I were always looking at buildings and saying, ‘That would make a nice restaurant.’”
In 1986, Ray and D’Arcy Arpke, the proprietors of Euphemia Haye on Longboat Key, told them about a little restaurant named Bijou Café that was for sale. It was located in a former Texaco gas station. When the Knaggses saw it, they said, “This is it … this is perfect.”
The location was downtown Sarasota, close to a bunch of boarded-up buildings in what is now Five Points Park. At the time, all the fine-dining places were in St. Armands and Longboat Key. A lot of folks said a white-tablecloth place would never fly there, because nobody would come at night. Yet, when J.P. and Shay were eating dinner at the Euphemia Haye one night and talking about their plans, a couple was listening from a nearby table and asked, “Really?”
Sandy and Barbara Maslansky were at the “new” Bijou Café when it opened June 2, 1986, and they became loyal, regular customers. The new owners kept the old name because they couldn’t find a better one. It was French enough, but not too French. In addition, there were cases of napkins and guest checks.
“My inspiration was the late Titus Letschert,” Knaggs says. “I worked for him at Café L’Europe for three-and-a-half years and wanted my restaurant to work as well as his did.”
The original concept was to make it the kind of place Knaggs would like to go to with his kid. “But, the customers were showing up in suits and ties and that kind of dictated what the restaurant would be,” says Knaggs.
Through the years, The Bijou Café has attracted some interesting customers. In summer 1990, for example, Knaggs stepped on a stingray and got a massive infection that kept him in the hospital for four days and out of the restaurant even longer. On his return, the staff couldn’t wait to tell him: “You won’t believe the family that came in here while you were gone. They ordered everything on the menu, tipped 80% and paid all cash.” The dream customers turned out to be John Gotti’s daughter and her husband, who owned a house on Casey Key. They came in every Saturday for the entire summer.
Some of the Bijou’s original offerings are still on the menu. The pommes gratin dauphinois is probably the most famous. Knaggs learned to make it when he was a private chef for a wealthy industrialist who sent him to L’Oustau de Baumanière, in Provence, France, and other world-class kitchens to master favorite dishes. Shrimp Piri Piri has a more humble, if equally delicious, beginning. It was Knaggs’ mother’s signature dish, and she insisted that he offer it.
Twenty-five years later, Knaggs says, “We have seen so many places come and go, and we very much appreciate the people of Sarasota and the Keys.”
The Bijou Café has grown from 50 seats to 140. And, Knaggs long ago left the stove for the front of the house. Shay Knaggs, who has run the office for many years, is almost semi-retired. Their son, born three weeks after the restaurant opened, graduated from the University of Florida with honors and is now on track to go to medical school.
The little restaurant that so many thought would never fly has become a local fine-dining institution where, sooner or later, almost everybody who is anybody in Sarasota says, “Please pass the potatoes.”
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