Sally Kane was born to be a restaurateur. Her earliest memories include dangling her feet from a bar stool at the Tack Room, the restaurant at Rancho del Rio guest ranch that was originally run by her father, Jud. She says, “My father loved to talk about where the food and wine came from, what the room looked like, what people were wearing. I was very young, but I remember his strong sense of place, of aesthetics.”
After Jud Kane died at the age of 44, his widow, two sons, and 6-year-old daughter struck out for California. It was the beginning of a journey that would eventually lead Kane back to Tucson and to the creation of her own dining spot, The Coronet.
Key stops along the way included a stint as manager at E.G. Kroeger’s Espresso in the San Francisco Bay area. Kane credits the cafe’s owner, Edith Kroeger, with an education on the importance of doing things right. “Some of the staff found Edith overbearing,” Kane says, “but I appreciated her quest for real quality.”
The time that Kane spent as a dishwasher, prep cook, and baker at the Seventh Heaven restaurant in Galway, Ireland, was similarly instructive. It not only taught her the restaurant business from the ground up but also helped shape an affinity for what she calls “home-cooked food steeped in global tradition.” Recipes for a superb chocolate gateau filled with hot rum and “the world’s best fish chowder” were side benefits.
All these experiences clearly paid off. USA Today named The Coronet Tucson’s top restaurant two years in a row and the cafe was featured in a Wine Enthusiast piece that ranked Tucson No. 1 on its 2016 list of Top Under-the-Radar Food Towns.
Not too shabby for an eatery that’s been open for less than three years.
The internationally inspired, locally sourced menu is definitely a draw. You’re likely to find walnut feta paté, venison kofta meatballs, tilapia roasted in parchment … all in expert preparations that let their fresh ingredients and distinctive flavors shine through. At the same time, The Coronet owes part of its success to its intimate atmosphere. The brasserie-style dining room and patio feel like they belong to another era and place, even though The Coronet straddles two of the buzziest restaurant stretches in town: It sits at the end of Fourth Avenue, just before the underpass to downtown’s Congress Street.
The restaurant comes by its retro ambience honestly: It was formerly the dining room of the 1928 Coronado Hotel. The painstaking restoration, which received an award from the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation, was part of a group effort led by Kane, who attended the California College of the Arts in San Francisco and, when she first returned to Tucson, opened Surface Works interior design studio. Architect Bill Mackey brought her vision to life but Kane and co-owner and partner Gregor Kretschmann worked out a lot of the details, including installing their collection of Hitchcock chairs and buying a 1906 bar from a small Arizona town. One of Kane’s most distinctive contributions was the floor, a bistro classic with encaustic tiles arrayed in intricate fleur-de-lis patterns—patterns reflected in the restaurant’s iron gate.
It was while The Coronet was under construction that Kane met Erika Bostick-Esham and formed the bond that gives the restaurant its heart—and its collaborative mojo. Bostick-Esham was the kitchen manager at Sparkroot, a vegetarian café on Congress Street that Kane frequented while supervising the restaurant restoration. Bostick-Esham recalls, “I had a lot of free rein there and was able to create specials. Sally used to come in every day and I would show her the menu. I could count on her to get an honest assessment of my work.”
Kane, in turn, was impressed by the energy and talent of the young Sparkroot manager. “We both love food and love talking about it, and we have similar ideas about it,” she says.
Like Kane, Bostick-Esham was introduced to the joys of the table at an early age. Growing up in Tucson, she says, “I used to watch cooking shows on PBS because it was too hot to play outside. My mom let me have fun in the kitchen when I was still a kid.” Steeped in the family tradition of Sonoran-Mexican cooking, young Erika learned how to make queso fresco and queso panela. “My mother showed me the deliciousness of spreading soft curds on a warm flour tortilla with a sprinkle of salt,” she says.
The connection between the two women grew sufficiently strong that Kane decided she wanted Bostick-Esham to help open The Coronet. She jokes, “I knew she was the one. I asked her out on a business date to propose.”
Bostick-Esham initially had cold feet; she worried because she wasn’t formally trained. That was fine with Kane, who wanted “a cook, not a chef,” but not until Kane’s cousin Jake Alpert agreed to share the responsibilities of opening the restaurant did Bostick-Esham agree to sign on, too. She was extremely glad she did. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, being able to buy the equipment we wanted and start out in a business before it was completed,” Bostick-Esham says. “It’s one of the things I’m most proud of doing.”
The brasserie-style dining room and patio feel like they belong to another era and place, even though The Coronet straddles two of the buzziest restaurant stretches in town.
Now Kane and Bostick-Esham are embarking on another from-scratch culinary adventure together: The creation of Aka Deli & Bakeshop in downtown’s burgeoning Mercado San Agustín complex.
What goes around comes around. Just as Kane got to know Bostick-Esham by observing her in her natural foodie habitat, so a customer with the power to impact her career became a regular at The Coronet. Adam Weinstein and Jerry Dixon, developers of the Mercado San Agustín and owners of Agustín Kitchen, were so impressed with Kane that they asked her to come in as a partner in Agustín Kitchen. They gave her the freedom to make any changes she wanted.
Those changes started off slow when Kane took the reins in October 2015. “People had been coming to Agustín since it’s been open and we had to respect that,” Kane says. The most recent menus reflect what Kane calls a “New American brasserie” aesthetic—and also The Coronet’s global scope. Steak frites with Whiskey del Bac bavarois, for example, mingles on the dinner menu with king salmon in dashi miso broth with chilled spinach ohitashi.
In contrast, Kane and Bostick-Esham were able to immediately put their mark on the associated bakery and deli that will open in September in the Mercado. Kane calls Aka—the name alludes both to Agustín Kitchen and to the aliases that they can play with in advertising—“a mashup between Coronet and Agustín.” Anticipating the lunch hour crowd at the new Caterpillar headquarters going in across the street, as well as the expansion of the Mercado to include a 500-seat event space and, eventually, several residential complexes, it’ll be a grab and go, but will also have a seating area. There, customers will be able to enjoy a rotating menu of sandwiches, fresh patés, salads, and baked goods as well as a selection of wine and beer, gourmet coffee, and Italian sodas.
As at The Coronet, where “drinkies” appear on the bill of fare, a spirit of whimsy prevails at Aka. For dessert, classic French pastry like buttery apple tarts might turn up alongside Ding Dongs made on site. Kane may have inherited the fine dining gene from her father, but sometimes girls just wanna have fun. ✜
The Coronet. 402 E. Ninth St. 520.222.9889. CafeCoronet.com.
Agustín Kitchen. Mercado San Agustín. 100 S. Avenida del Convento. 520.398.5382.