By Donna Furey | LB Indy
Scores of Toni Leech’s friends shared fond memories and funny stories about the popular local who passed away on Aug. 12 at her home in Laguna Beach with her husband of 41 years by her side. “Toni was one of the facets in the jewel that is Laguna Beach,” Mark Christy said.
Toni Leech was born in 1951 on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, one of 18 children.
She was “weaned in the restaurant business,” her husband, Michael, said. After relocating to Northern California, Toni’s mother ran Trader Vic’s in Oakland and then worked at the famous Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto. Toni bussed tables at 15.
Leech met her husband Michael in the early 70s when both were working at Five Crowns in Corona Del Mar. In 1973, they opened The Quiet Woman together, also in Corona Del Mar, and in 1978, they married.
The Quiet Woman quickly became a local’s hangout, employees became friends, and “It was our version of Cheers,” said Scott Guenther, a friend of the Leechs for more than five decades. Paula Lister, who worked there as a hostess, recalls a 14-foot-square, framed poster that displayed photos of the staff tagged with Michael Leech’s pet names for them
Lister and Toni, who were best friends for 42 years, had a habit of saying “love you” to each other when going their separate ways. “Toni would always look me straight in the eye and say, ‘I love you more,’” Lister tearfully recalled.
Valerie Gomez also worked at The Quiet Woman and became friends with the Leechs. She later worked for them at Café Zoolu as well. “[Toni and I] called each other daily,” she said. Gomez was one of the few who knew Toni was ill. Michael Leech said she had had various illnesses over the past six years but did not state a cause of death.
The Leechs sold The Quiet Woman in 1989 after also running branches in Dana Point and Laguna Beach. They took some time off and did consulting work, but Michael missed cooking, and so answered an ad in the newspaper for a chef at Café Zoolu. When the proprietor assessed his resume and deemed him “over-qualified,” he offered to sell the restaurant to him.
It did not take long for Zoolu, under the Leechs’ management, to morph into the next “Cheers”-like locals spot. Quiet Woman fans, including Guenther, Christy and Mark Judy, among others from the Quiet Woman in Corona Del Mar, were thrilled. “It was like an open house; whenever the door was open, you were welcome,” Judy said. “Toni was a beautiful woman; she had a tough outer crust, but once she got to know you, she was a loyal friend,” Judy added.
“Zoolu was an authentic Laguna experience,” Christy said. “To me it was heaven, and Toni was St. Peter at the gate.”
Angie Miller, also a Quiet Woman patron, collaborated with Toni on planning corporate events in Laguna in the 80s and became a close friend. She too was a Zoolu regular, but she didn’t order off the menu. “I eat like a bird; so when I’d go in, Toni would tell Michael, ‘Give her a scrap.’” Miller said.
“We worked side by side for 45 years,” Michael Leech said of his late wife and business partner. “That’s like 90 years together.”
“Toni and Michael were the perfect complement to each other; they shared a heart,” Christy said.
Donnie Crevier, who met the Leechs at the Dana Point Quiet Woman and became a Zoolu regular said, “They were one the best teams in town, running one of the best restaurants in town.”
When the Leechs retired in 2016, after running Café Zoolu for 24 years, Michael said, “It’s overwhelming how customers have come out in droves. I didn’t know we meant so much.” Christy likened the last night at Zoolu to the last episode of the last season of “Cheers.” Loyal patrons called Cafe Zoolu “homey” and compared the experience to going to a friend’s house that happens to be an excellent cook.
“Toni had a feistiness that was totally lovable,” said longtime friend and fellow restaurateur Michael Byrne.Byrne and his wife, Cindy, opened their restaurant, Roux on the site of Café Zuloo after it closed. “She was a classic example of a local character,” said Byrne, comparing her to the equally well-loved Chip Harrell, co-owner of Laguna’s Sandpiper Lounge, who passed away last September. “They can’t be replaced,” he added.
Toni’s husband, Michael, her brother, Douglas, of Albuquerque, and her sister, Jeanne, of Las Vegas, survive Leech. A celebration of her life is planned for early October.