BY PHIL WHEELER
The Ala Carte Cafe is a stone’s throw from the railroad trains clattering over the viaduct crossing the intersection of Madison and Third streets in downtown Port Clinton. If you come for a leisurely meal, there is a good chance you will be serenaded by the sounds of a train rumbling through town.
The trains aren’t very loud, simply adding to the ambiance of the popular diner. Lisa and Bill Black have owned and operated the Ala Carte since 2014, purchasing the well-run breakfast business from their aunt, Ellie Carte.
It’s a Mom and Pop Place. The meals are very good and the service is warm and friendly. Prices are reasonable. It is a good spot to grab breakfast before going on with your day.
Rated the No. 3 restaurant in Port Clinton by Tripadvisor, it has earned an overall rating of 4.5 stars.
The diner has been going strong since 1989, when Lisa’s aunt and uncle, Denny and Ellie Carte, purchased the old Town and Country restaurant and changed the name to the Ala Carte Cafe. The name is actually a play on words. Ellie Carte became Ala Carte.
Lisa worked there for more than 20 years before she and her husband, Bill, bought the place, and not much has changed. Why mess with perfection?
In 2017, they purchased the building next door.
“We mainly bought it because there are six apartments upstairs,” said Lisa Black, “Our intention was to rent or lease the bottom part. We tried it, and it didn’t really work out. It sat empty for a year, and Covid-19 just forced our hand into doing something that we had planned to do eventually.”
The original intention for the new building was to handle the overflow breakfast crowd on Saturday and Sunday mornings, when families flocked to the small diner after attending nearby church services.
“Once we bought the tables and chairs, and the kitchen equipment, we just said ‘Go for it,’” she said.
Originally the Fire Place Lounge, the building has been used as a pool hall, and there have been a couple of other bars and restaurants since then, as well. The inside has been completely redone. The bar has been moved, and a new floor was added in addition to all the painting and remodeling.
The two buildings are now one restaurant. The original building is still The Ala Carte Cafe, with its roomy addition becoming Ala Carte Cafe After Hours.
“We went ahead and busted out the walls, taking a big leap of faith that the Covid-19 thing would pass, and business would be good,” said Lisa. “We have a lot of loyal local customers that kept us going. We were going to do dinner, but we were not going to do it at After Hours until we knew we could do it well. We needed to be able to live up to the same expectations as Ala Carte Cafe.”
The Ala Carte Cafe After Hours has been open since August, and has a full menu of good eats. From starters like pierogies and potato skins, to tacos and wings, hand-held perch sandwiches, and full dinners such as salmon and strip steaks, the restaurant offers good meals at a reasonable price.
There is even a hearty prime rib served on Saturday nights. Beginning this week, they will be open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
The original Ala Carte still closes at 1 p.m.
“In the summer we open at 4:30 a.m, so we keep it to one shift,” said Lisa. “We have a lot of fishermen who like to eat here before heading out on Lake Erie.”
Loyalty is not confined to the customers. Many of Lisa’s employees have been with the restaurant for many years. Head server Lisa Radloff has been on duty for more than 30 years. Lisa’s mom, Mary Root, had been a mainstay and still works part-time.
“People always say we should come out to Marblehead, Catawba or Sandusky, but we are working owners,” said Lisa. “I still work on the grill, my husband still busses tables and helps with the dishes. For us to have a second location would just take away from what we’re able to do here.
“This is a legacy for us. My Aunt Ellie still works for us at 77 years of age. She just retired in December, but she comes in and makes our cookies. My mom works for me. She is 80, and works three days a week. Those two women are amazing, they can work anyone under the table.”
Lisa has told her mother to slow down, and possibly finally retire.
“She doesn’t need to work so hard,” said Lisa. “A few weeks later she came back and told me she had taken a job as a dish washer at the Denny’s in Fremont. She told me she wasn’t going to just sit around. I told her to come back here and work.”
Lisa said they take pride in everything they do at Ala Carte Cafe.
“Everything reflects on my husband and I as business owners. We just keep doing what we can to ensure that the customers come back. Taking care of our customers is our number one priority. Without them, we would not be here,” she said.
Visit them online at https://www.restaurantji.com/oh/port-clinton/ala-carte-caf-/.