With a new chef and new menu, downtown dining Halifax mainstay Café Chianti marks its 25th anniversary with an eye on the future.
The dream of owning a restaurant is not uncommon. For most, it’s just an idle fantasy. Others muster up the courage to try their hand at it, but few last long in the business. A rare exception to the rule is Café Chianti, about to celebrate the beginning of its 25th year in business. Owner Jan Wicha has faced obstacles along the way, including a fire and a relocation. But overwhelming support from the community has kept him, his family and his business going.
Wicha immigrated to Canada in 1968—not from Italy, as one might expect from the name and menu of Café Chianti, which serves a modern interpretation of traditional Italian cuisine—but from Czechoslovakia. He began working in the hotel business and eventually went on to become a partner in two different restaurants in Halifax and Bedford. In 1988, Wicha rented a space for a new restaurant. Here, he would also find the inspiration for his restaurant’s name. In the basement, he encountered what he says must have been a thousand empty bottles of Chianti wine. In early 1989, his restaurant opened and he called it Café Chianti.
“It started as a family business,” says Wicha. “My mother, Josephine, has been with me since the very beginning. She works up front and sometimes in the kitchen. My wife [Helen] has been beside me for 18 years now.” Helen Wicha was instrumental in designing the interior of the restaurant’s new location.
In January 2010, a fire badly damaged Café Chianti’s former location on South Street. Initially, the prognosis for that location was optimistic. “I was giving interviews saying we’d be open in one or two weeks,” says Wicha, adding that his intention was to pay the staff in the interim “to keep the team together.” But luck was not on their side. Complications with the insurance company and the building’s ownership delayed, and eventually deterred, the reopening.
“We did some soul searching,” says Wicha. They considered retirement. But then, “our customers got in touch with us asking, ‘When will you be open?’” Staff sought employment insurance, vowing to return to work when Café Chianti eopened. Wicha says the decision to reopen involved looking deep into their hearts, and their pockets. They looked at four different locations and eventually settled on the space they’re in now on Barrington Street, just around the corner and half a block down from the old spot.
Jan and Helen Wicha say the support for the new location was almost overwhelming. Twenty-three of the original 24 staff returned to work at the new location—the 24th moved away. For regulars, the staff is a big part of the appeal. “It’s the food for one thing, but the people!” says Edna Rand of Bedford. She and husband Charlie have been patrons of Café Chianti for over a dozen years. “The décor is beautiful and the people are the same. They treat you like family,” she says, explaining that Charlie has been ordering a dish that isn’t on the menu for years. “He’s kind of fussy,” she says. “One of the waiters one time said, ‘Let me see what I can do for you,’ and he went to talk to the chef.”
The Wichas say they fill special orders like that almost daily. They recently hired a staff member who’s vegan and are using her expertise to explore vegan menu options. They also offer vegetarian and gluten-free meals, relying heavily on local suppliers, including using a local supply of seafood year-round. Wicha says that if a customer has a specific request, “we want to say yes to that client. With a little effort, you can.”
Newly hired head chef Terry Vassallo, who recently crafted a new menu, is of the same mindset. “There is a simplicity to this cuisine,” he says. “Everything is made to order so that makes [custom orders] easier. There is no vat of sauce in the back.”
Originally from Sydney, Cape Breton, Vassallo spent nine years in Vancouver before moving back to the East Coast to pursue his culinary dreams in his home province. He’s eager to continue his work in what he calls Halifax’s significant culinary scene and to “throw my hat into the ring and feel that sense of competition and kinship.” He says he hopes to promote Café Chianti even further. “I’m excited that I’m involved in an institution that has been open 25 years, which is the exception in our industry.”
Wicha thinks the history is part of what makes people keep coming back year after year. “People tell us, ‘I had my first date here,’ ‘I celebrated my first anniversary here,’” he says and smiles, “I’m hoping it’s the food as well.”