Claire’s Café and Gallery: A Great Way to Start the Day
Dec 01, 2015 10:44AM
● By Suzie Agrillo
Chef Claire Johnson
Locals and tourists flock to Claire’s Café and Gallery, a darling café just past the Golden Goose Thrift Shop, to savor home cooking by Chef Claire Johnson. Open for breakfast and lunch, the uniqueness of the restaurant is reflected in its food preparation and the art adorning the walls. Visitors can sample locally inspired dishes, like the Cowboy, Covered Wagon or Stagecoach burgers, surrounded by original art in the gallery.
Breakfast at the café features an array of palate pleasers. “A favorite breakfast is the Breakfast Quesadilla and the most popular omelet is our Turkey, Avocado, Bacon and Swiss Cheese Omelet,” Johnson says. On Sundays, the restaurant serves Eggs Benedict with homemade hollandaise sauce. “One of our healthy midday entrees is Sautéed Veggies and Brown Rice with tamari sauce,” she notes.
Going into its 30th year in business, the café opened when Catalina was a rural community, and Johnson bought the former Dyna Café and transformed it into Claire’s. Originally trained as a silversmith, Johnson’s jewelry is featured in the restaurant, which has a welcoming vibe. “We’re a cottage industry. Everyone who works here is an artist, including the cook, waitresses and the dishwasher,” she relates. Their wares are all sold in the café, along with other exquisite art and paintings.
A native of Chicago, Johnson hails from a family of creative cooks. Beginning her culinary career as a produce buyer, she founded an organic co-op and worked closely with chefs there. “I got a lot of opportunity to work with really fine chefs in Chicago in the early ‘70s, which helped me gain my skill set,” she recounts. When she relocated to Tucson in 1980, she worked stints at restaurants such as the Blue Willow, Eclectic Cafe, Oro Valley Country Club and Loews Ventana Canyon Resort.
Johnson exudes pride for the freshness and purity of the food she serves. All of the soups and their chorizo are made from scratch, she uses only olive oil or refined canola oil and she serves organic Guatemalan coffee, which is ground by the pot. The produce is 80 to 90 percent organic, depending upon availability. She uses grass-fed beef and cage-free eggs purchased locally, and the refried beans are vegetarian and made without lard.
Additionally, Claire’s caters to special dietary needs. She has a separate area and equipment that is gluten-free, and uses gluten-free products from the Gourmet Girls Bakery. The patio is dog-friendly, with water dishes provided for canine guests by the nearby Camp Bow-Wow.
Johnson is an entrepreneur, however her passion is for people over profit. “It’s never been about the money, or I would have stayed a corporate chef,” she observes. Every year, the day before Thanksgiving, she hosts a meal for those who can afford it as well as those who cannot. Last year, the restaurant served over 800 meals. In past years, she has served more than 600 meals, including dine-in and Meals on Wheels.
Having received many accolades for her generosity, Johnson was named Oro Valley’s Citizen of the Year in 1993. The modest chef pays homage to her customers for her success: “We are blessed because we love what we do and we love all of our customers.”
Claire’s Café and Art Gallery is located at 16140 N. Oracle, in Catalina. For more information, call 520-825-2525 or visit ClairesCafe.net. See ad, page 10.
Suzie Agrillo is a freelance writer in Tucson and a frequent contributor to Natural Awakenings magazine. She focuses on writing on the arts, inspirational people and the human connection.