This season at Café L’Europe marks the 50th anniversary of the restaurant's opening.
“There's a lot of love for this restaurant from the community and families who have dined here for generations,” said Eleni Sokos, director of brand strategy for Oysters Rock Hospitality which represents the Café. “Grandparents come here with their grandkids. This is where they had their first date. Most of the locals had their first experience of fine dining at Café.”
The restaurant recently finished the second stage of renovations for a complete remodel of the famous St. Armands Circle eatery. While designing for the future, the staff couldn't help but reminisce about the Café's rich history.
Titus Letschert and Norbert Goldner opened Café L’Europe on Jan. 21, 1973.
The two founders met while working in Manhattan at a restaurant called Sign of the Dove. Letschert moved to Sarasota in 1971 because the owner of The Colony Beach and Tennis Resort, Dr. Murray Klauber, recruited him to work at his restaurant.
Goldner moved to Sarasota to fulfill a dream of opening a restaurant alongside Letschert. They bought the popular Colombi’s Italian Restaurant on the Circle and renovated it themselves. The Café L’Europe name and concept were inspired by the ambiance of the De L’Europe Hotel in Amsterdam and the interior design of the Sign of The Dove restaurant.
The building was originally built in 1926 to hold the real estate office of John Ringling then housed the Cocoanut Palms restaurant in the 1950s before becoming Colombi's.
Goldner opened his own Café L’Europe in Palm Beach in 1980 while Letschert continued to head the Café L’Europe in Sarasota. Around this time, the "Titus Letschert University" started, as Michael Garey of Lazy Lobster likes to call it.
“Dr. Klauber and Titus literally created their own competition with all the people that went on to open restaurants,” said Garey. “These restaurants were either owned or run by people that work for Dr. Klauber of The Colony or Titus or both. We used to say when we would get together, ‘We could take our top 20 restaurants, and take Tampa restaurants on straight up.’”
Some of the area’s top restaurant titans worked at Café L’Europe back in the day. This list includes Harry Christensen of Harry’s Continental Kitchens, J.P. Knaggs of Bijou Café, Ray Arpke of Euphemia Haye, Garey and Bob Fracalossy of the Lazy Lobster. Garey said Letschert was one of the biggest influences on his life and not a day goes by without him or Fracalossy referencing Letschert.
“Norbert and Titus, they work their keisters off,” said John Horne, who is a current co-proprietor of Café L’Europe along with his wife Amanda. “Everybody that worked here, that's what permeated through to them, that hard work and hospitality that came from Titus. And we want to continue that. We want people to know that Titus is still influencing people here.”
The Hornes purchased Café L’Europe in February of 2020. Staff emphasized the positive impact that they have on the restaurant. Sokos compared John Horne to both Letschert and Ringling for their big and dedicated personalities.
“We have a tradition that anyone who's been with the company for five years or more is invited on a fun outing with the staff,” said Sokos. “Just on Monday, we went to the bowling alley. We did a bunch of fun contests like, blindfolded bowling, if you're right-handed bowl with your left hand, and the best one was you had to hold a tray of water bottles and bowl. Those are the types of cultural things that John really prioritizes. Just a few of the ways that we kind of make sure that everybody feels like family around here.”
Sokos said that Horne is the chair of the board of directors for the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. Horne uses his position to advocate for important matters that affect his employees such as affordable housing and minimum wage.
As Café L’Europe looks forward, its leadership wants to keep the strong values and foundation of the past with the twist of modern times. Phases one and two of their plan renovated their private and semi-private dining areas while adding a new bar area with more seating. Plans for the last phase are still in development as the owners decide how to tackle the facade — the original and most iconic part of the building.
“We recognize that we have to make the experience a little bit more approachable to continue thriving for the next 50 years,” said Sokos. “So there's some hesitancy but I think overall, we've navigated the transition pretty gracefully. The plan is for it to be a little bit more casual upfront more. A little bit more inviting things like wine flights and charcuterie boards and bites are going to be part of the menu. Then if you want the duck a l’orange and the escargot, the back of the restaurant is where you can still have that super elegant experience.”
For the 50th anniversary, Café L’ Europe has planned a yearlong celebration of events. The Legacy Chef Wine Dinner series hosts local chefs who got their start at the restaurant to share their personal experiences of Café L’ Europe. The restaurant also invites anyone who is celebrating a 50th birthday this year to do so at Café L’ Europe and get a complimentary glass of Champagne with the purchase of a main course.
“We're honored to be stewards of such a legacy,” said Horne. “Everybody has a memory within these walls and people come in and tell us, ‘This was my mom and dad's favorite spot. I can remember the first time as a child, it's the first time I wore high heels.’ Stuff like that. That's what restaurants are about: creating memories. We want to always be Café, we want to keep Café going and we are going to have another 50 years of Café.”
Petra Rivera is the Longboat community reporter. She holds a bachelor’s degree of journalism with an emphasis on reporting and writing from the University of Missouri. Previously, she was a food and drink writer for Vox magazine as well as a reporter for the Columbia Missourian.