Local | Senior Lifestyle

As Jewish community in Northwest grows, local cafe owner’s heritage is menu inspiration

Claire Johnson, left, at her cafe in Catalina with customers Scott McGowen (in cowboy hat) and Wayne and Bernadette Olsen (Korene Charnofsky Cohen/AJP)

Haimish, Yiddish for friendly or homey, sums up Claire’s Cafe and Art Gallery in Catalina. Good food also figures into the picture, but the warm atmosphere created by owners Claire and Steve Johnson keeps drawing loyal customers. The cafe was awarded the 2016 Better Business Bureau Good Neighbor Award for service to the community – including 26 years of providing a free pre-Thanksgiving dinner for hundreds of people. And diners are discovering that the cafe offers some traditional Jewish foods.

“I always say Claire’s is like ‘Cheers’ without the alcohol,” says Paula Roberts, who has been coming to the cafe three or four times a week for 15 years. “I come for the good food and service, but also because it’s friendly and I feel so comfortable here.” Claire and Steve are “awesome,” she says, and introduce people so regular customers get to know each other. She points out a couple, saying “They just returned from Indiana and we already gave each other hugs and caught up on what happened over the summer.”

Claire’s Cafe has been around for nearly 31 years, but Claire, who turns 70 next month, says her road to the restaurant business began in Chicago. She grew up in a kosher home with her mother and grandmother, “great cooks who ruled the kitchen” making traditional Jewish food, including Romanian and Turkish dishes. Family members always gathered at her house for holiday celebrations.

Claire’s career as a chef began in the 1970s, when she was a food buyer and cook for the Columbia Food Co-op in Chicago, which specialized in organic produce. Twice a week, Claire would take the leftover vegetables and make soup, which the co-op gave away to neighborhood residents, including many Russian immigrants, who would come to the back door of the co-op with their own containers.

Tiring of the snowy winters in Chicago, Claire moved to Tucson in 1979. Her first cooking job was at the Blue Willow. She also has worked for the Eclectic Cafe, Ventana Golf and Racquet Club, Oro Valley Country Club and CB Rye.

“Eventually, I wanted to do my own thing, work for myself, and be able to design a menu that included organic and ethnic foods,” says Claire. “I wanted someplace rural, which led me to Catalina, where I found that the Dyna Cafe (short for dynamite) was for sale.” The Dyna Cafe, she says, was a hangout for every rancher and cowboy in the area, along with other colorful characters such as artists. There was some resistance to her as the new owner because she made changes to the menu. “But when people realized the food was good, more people began to come, and many became repeat customers,” she says. A silversmith as well as a chef, Claire decided to make the cafe an art gallery to showcase her jewelry and the work of other artists.

The restaurant is open for breakfast and lunch, featuring an extensive all-day breakfast menu as well as lunch items such as sandwiches, burgers (including a vegetarian option), soups and salads. Claire tries to use as much locally grown food as possible, and ingredients that have no pesticides, colorings or other additives.

“I embrace the traditions and have a high regard for the Jewish community, and since there is a growing Jewish community in Oro Valley and SaddleBrooke, I want to put more Jewish items on the menu,” she says. Blintzes with strawberry or blueberry topping and scrambled eggs with lox and onions are already regular menu items. Claire says that for many years she has made chopped chicken liver, matzah ball soup, sweet and sour cabbage soup and other dishes for Jewish holidays. This year she will be making potato latkes for Chanukah, and she always has matzah on hand in case someone requests a matzah brei. She recommends calling ahead to see what Jewish entrees will be available. “Love and Knishes,” a 1956 cookbook by Sara Kasdan, is her bible for Jewish cooking, she says.

Claire and Steve were married in 1990 and Steve joined the business as CEO.  They both believe that being a good neighbor is part of being a good business owner. Due to restaurant remodeling, they will have to skip the big pre-Thanksgiving dinner this year, but Claire says the dinner will again be offered next year.

The first free dinner was held on Thanksgiving day, but Claire realized her employees needed to celebrate with their families, and moved the free dinner to the day before Thanksgiving. There are no reservations needed and everyone is welcomed to share food and friendship. The cafe usually serves as many as 400 people. Claire says this event is a cooperative effort by the restaurant, some of their vendors and several churches, with many people volunteering to help cook, bake, serve and clean up.

Being a good neighbor isn’t limited to Thanksgiving dinner. Claire and Steve provide free meals to shut-ins (often long-time customers who cannot get out due to illness or injury), or to people who are just down on their luck. Steve occasionally does handyman work for the elderly, or will pick up a customer who can no longer drive but wants to come to the cafe.

Claire’s Cafe and Art Gallery is located at 16140 N. Oracle Road in Catalina. Call 825-2525 to find out what’s cooking.

Korene Charnofsky Cohen is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.