John and Judy Correa own the successful Café Solé on Southard Street, where Chef Correa offers fine dining during the evenings. So why, with 19 years of running the unique eatery, did the couple decide to open Bistro Solé on White Street?
“I wanted to offer French food for everyone, at a fair price,” Correa said during lunch at his new bistro. “I wanted to offer more casual French food for the working person.”
Correa said bistro means working man’s restaurant in French.
“Judy and I wanted a more centralized location, too,” Correa said. “About seven years ago, I actually talked to the then-owner of this property about buying, but it didn’t happen. When it became available this time, we bought it.”
Why not offer a luncheon menu at Café Solé?
“We’ve tried lunches at Café Solé,” Correa said. “I’m not sure why it didn’t work. Maybe the location isn’t convenient for lunch. Sometimes we’d have good days and then nothing. It wasn’t consistent, so we stopped.”
Consistency is important to Correa.
“Any restaurant has to keep its food and service, just about everything, consistent,” he said. “If a customer comes in Tuesday for lunch and likes our papaya salad they will be disappointed if it’s different next time they come in and order it. The same goes for everything on our menu. They expect the same quality all the time. If not, why come back?”
To Correa and his wife, that means more than the food. While Judy keeps the books for the businesses, at the bistro her duties also include greeting and seating customers when needed. Chef Correa left his lunch seat at the bistro’s smaller, air-conditioned dining room a number of times to greet customers he knew, to ask about the service and how they liked their meal. Then it was back to the kitchen to offer advice or help to the staff.
“We believe in being hands-on,” Correa said. “I’m that way at both restaurants. If it needs doing right now and I’m there, I’ll do it.”
There might be nothing Correa can’t do in his restaurants.
He helped his father open an Italian restaurant in Boston, his hometown, and that experience helped him become interested in cooking. He attended Cambridge School of Culinary Arts in Boston. He was also involved in opening five other restaurants in Florida, three of them in Key West. These experiences have helped him know the restaurant business intimately — from cleaning the grease trap, to seating customers, to helping them choose wine for their meal. And let’s not forget his forté, cooking. For the past seven years, Correa has been in charge of cooking a pig for the Basilica of St. Mary’s popular pig roast fundraiser. Correa said the event brings close to 1,000 people to the basilica’s grounds.
After the one-year culinary program, Correa moved to France to learn to cook in the French style.
“I’m kind of a mongrel. My last name is Spanish, my father owned an Italian restaurant and I went to France to learn the art of cooking French food!” he said, laughing.
Correa worked in French restaurants for three years, learning the secrets. When they couple arrived in Key West in 1995, they discovered the city already had good Italian restaurants. He said it was an obvious choice to open a French restaurant, Café Solé.
The new bistro’s location has been home to a number of restaurants and, for one reason or another, they failed. Correa said the building already had a good, working kitchen. And the property includes a large outdoor patio and bar. The ambiance of the patio is more like someone’s backyard. And locals may recognize one or two of the nine Key West High School students Correa has hired.
“We’ve put up large umbrellas for shade,” Correa said. “There are heating lamps for the few chilly nights we have in Key West and our bar has a wide variety of wine and craft beers.
“This is more like what a French bistro is like in France,” he said walking outside to the patio. “People meet friends, share a glass of wine and a good affordable meal in a friendly atmosphere.”
Correa said he hopes eventually to consolidate the menu so it’s the same for lunch and dinner.
“If you want my chicken curry sandwich at eight p.m., you’ll be able to order it,” he said.
1019 White St., Key West
open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; closed Monday
Lunch price averages $8 to $13; dinner $18 to $20.