Since word got out that Café Zoolu owners Michael and Toni Leech intend to retire, fans have packed the 37-seat Laguna Beach restaurant as if it was a Saturday night in midsummer.
“It’s overwhelming how customers have come out in droves,” said Leech, 67, a chef renowned for a baseball cut of swordfish prepared in different ways. “I didn’t know we meant so much,” he said.
Over 46 years, Leech says he has owned and operated seven different restaurants between Dana Point and Newport Beach, starting at age 22 with the Quiet Woman in his hometown of Corona del Mar in 1970.
“I haven’t slept in 45 years. It’s time to get a life,” said Leech, who plans to pack up his ceramic knives and close on May 29, a 24-year run. He thinks he might write a cookbook. It might even include a recipe for his second favorite dish, Asian calamari. “I’ve become pretty good at soups and sauces,” said Leech, who creates cuisine from an open exhibition-style kitchen.
Barring the unforeseen, Zoolu will be revamped with a creole influence under the new ownership of a regular patron, Michael Byrne. “It looks like it should be two blocks off Bourbon Street,” Bryne said of the restaurant, located in a 1939 house and a former studio of the late artist Leonard Kaplan. His heir, son Adam, now owns the property.
Byrne, the 12-year barkeep and co-owner of The Saloon, also in Laguna Beach, says he’s recruited a master of crawfish étouffée and beignets. Norm Theard, who operated the now closed Creole Chef restaurant in Los Angeles, plans to relocate to Laguna to run the kitchen, Byrne said.
The pair have yet to settle on a name for the new restaurant, but after making some internal changes they expect to open their doors by mid-August, Byrne said.
Byrne figures his career in the liquor business, initially selling Red Hook beer and more recently investing with a partner in ionized water-infused Ion vodka, will serve him well. Moreover, he and his wife Cindy, associate publisher of Firebrand Media, live walking distance away from Zoolu and the bar. The couple plan second jobs for themselves as the restaurant’s new greeters.
Leech credits Zoolu’s success to the quality of the dishes he prepares, a credit to his long-standing relationships with food purveyors who make daily deliveries. On Wednesday, he was serving swordfish from Mexico. The night before, it came from San Diego. Other nights, it is from New Zealand or Hawaii.
Six months ago, a deal to sell the restaurant fell apart when a potential investor backed out, said Leech, who also considered and turned aside other offers.
“This is the best thing possible; this was meant to be,” said Leech, happy to leave his legacy in the hands of a local resident with designs on a concept fresh to Laguna.