A Passion For Food
Claire’s on Cedros makes for good eats
Posted on March 16, 2017
Claire Allison is a roll-up-her-sleeves kind of chef-owner who’s not afraid to get her hands dirty. Though the proprietor of her namesake breakfast bastion in Solana Beach wasn’t technically working when we met, Allison cheerily explains, “They needed someone to peel potatoes, so I peeled potatoes!” For more than seven years it’s been this honest, no-nonsense commitment that’s kept tables full and people returning to her charming Cedros Avenue spot.
An experienced cook with a special skill for baking (before opening Claire’s, she helmed the bakery at Milton’s in Del Mar for 12 years), Allison is humble about her kitchen talents. “I don’t really think I’m a super chef; I think I’m a good cook. But the truth is, most of the great chefs in town think they’re just ‘good cooks.’” With prowess first honed with a library card and borrowed cookbooks instead of time spent at a culinary academy, Allison credits her success to a simple love of cooking. “I had a passion, so I followed it,” she says. “I love trying new food, and I love trying to see if there’s a new way to mix it and get a different flavor profile that people might like.” To her, this pure enjoyment trumps a stint at Le Cordon Bleu. “To anybody who asks me if they should go to culinary school, I say no,” she says frankly. “If it’s something you enjoy, then just do it. I’m a firm believer that if you do anything long enough and often enough, you’ll get good at it.”
It’s her continual tinkering with recipes and testing new things that inspires her to want to frequently change the menu — something that regular customers aren’t always receptive to seeing. She is surprised by people’s devotion to certain items. “The Green Scramble!” she exclaims. “I can’t take it off the menu!”
In addition to a slew of standards that can be categorized as customer favorites, like the Short Rib Hash and the Fried Green Tomato Sandwich, the loyalty the restaurant enjoys has more to do with the direct and very personal connection Allison has to everything that’s happening here, from back in the kitchen to the front of the house.
“It’s what makes restaurants like ours different than other restaurants,” she explains. “It’s not just me, but there are other restaurants in San Diego, too, where there is a chef-owner who is very actively involved in the running of the restaurant. Those are the places I gravitate toward, because they feel personal. You feel like somebody cares about whether it’s a success or not.” Her passion carries over to the people who work for her, and ultimately the food that goes on every plate. “The truth is, it’s a team. I’m out front and I got this team going, but it’s a team.”
Claire’s On Cedros got off to an auspicious start when it opened in August 2009 as the first restaurant in California and second in the country to be Platinum LEED certified. Last September, Claire’s Too opened in a building that also shares that LEED distinction next door, where customers can purchase grab-and-go bakery items and to-go orders.
“I love what I get to do,” she says. “I told you I was peeling today — I love peeling potatoes. I know that sounds really silly, but the act of peeling potatoes with my crew and talking about what’s going on in their lives or what’s going on in the restaurant, to me, it’s mindless work while my head can work on other things.”
Of all that she’s learned along the way as a restaurateur, the interaction within the chef community has been the most refreshing surprise for Allison. “It’s more collaborative than competitive,” she says. “The truth is, people eat out a lot — there’s a lot of business to divide amongst everybody. I’ve met so many great chefs in San Diego. I haven’t met too many egos out there.”
In that same vein, she admits feeling a bit odd when she’s approached as a kind of local celebrity. She’s struck by “people being excited to meet ‘Claire,’” she laughs, adding, “In my mind, I’m trying to run a business here — feed people and be sustainable. I haven’t changed. I am the same person.”
This, I can personally attest to be true. I’ve known Claire Allison for a long, long time. I babysat her two kids longer ago than I’d care to mention. She was always wonderful to me, and I loved those kids, but there was a bonus: often when I left, Claire would give me a freshly baked loaf of bread in addition to paying me for my time. And that bread was just as amazing all those years ago as anyone who’s visited this fabulous spot can imagine it was. 858.259.8597, clairesoncedros.com Deanna Murphy
Claire Allison: Photo by Bob Stefanko All other photography by Doyle Terry