It’s been a Sarasota institution for 43 years and has groomed some of the area’s most successful chefs and restaurateurs. Now, Café L’Europe is changing hands.
Last week, owner Betsie Coolidge sold the restaurant to Ron Milton for an undisclosed amount. The sale will be final Aug. 1.
“He was very persistent and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” Coolidge said. “I didn’t have intentions to sell it.”
Although the restaurant is changing ownership, Milton plans to keep it the same.
“I’ve been after the restaurant for a long time,” Milton said. “It’s something I think is very special to the community. It contains the icon status that it always has for the last 43 years, and I hope I can take it to even another level.”
Titus Letschert and Norbert Goldner opened the restaurant on Jan. 21, 1973. Shortly after its opening, it became a Sarasota icon.
“Titus and Norbert were both from Europe, where being in the restaurant business is equivalent to being a Fortune 500 owner,” Coolidge said. “It’s a prestigious job. They had the European training and were in New York, and when they came here, they were one step ahead of the old Sarasota.”
Many of the employees of Letschert and Goldner have gone on to become some of Sarasota’s culinary stars, including Michael Garey and Bob Fracalossy, of the Lazy Lobster, Harry Christensen, of Harry’s Continental Kitchens, Ray Arpke, of Euphemia Haye, Bill Herlihy, of Bridge Street Bistro, and J.P. Knaggs, of Bijou Café.
“We called it Titus University,” said Garey, who worked his way up from busboy to general manager during more than 22 years at the restaurant. “The alumni list reads like who’s who. I don’t think there’s ever been a lineup like that in the history of the town.”
Goldner eventually left Sarasota to open a Café L’Europe in Palm Beach, and Coolidge joined the business when she married Letschert. She took over the restaurant after Letschert’s death in 2011.
“I consider it probably the most important place I ever worked,” Arpke, who worked there from 1975 to 1980, said. “I really, really learned a lot there from Norbert and Titus. … There was no place in town doing anything to that caliber. Norbert and Titus demanded hard work and a high level of ability to produce nothing but your very best. You couldn’t serve an inferior product. You had to strive for perfection.”
When Café L’Europe opened, St. Armands Circle was a nightlife hotspot. Although the Circle has changed, Café L’Europe’s standards have not.
“They’ve done an excellent job in balancing tradition with staying current,” Garey said. “I think you have to understand the heritage and the past of the restaurant, and you have to balance that with staying with the times.”
Staples of the restaurant include two servers who have been there since opening day and decades-old menu items.
“Some of the recipes I had are still on the menu there after all these years,” Christensen said. “It was a great experience. I’ve got great friendships there. We had good times.”
Café L’Europe may have a new owner, but Christensen hopes changes aren’t too noticeable.
“Hopefully the new person doesn’t change things around too much,” he said. “It’s a formula that works and has worked for many, many years, and as long as the new person can continue being high quality, have wonderful service and delicious food, he has a business that works.”