There were a lot of things that Ingrid Croce didn’t know when she and husband Jim Rock began looking around their Park West neighborhood for a restaurant location a few years ago.
They didn’t know they’d lose the legendary Croce’s Restaurant and Jazz Bar in the Gaslamp Quarter. They didn’t know they’d be moving to the Balboa Park area instead of expanding from their downtown base.
But what Croce and Rock did know – from the first time they began thinking about having a space outside downtown – was that, like their now-shuttered groundbreaking Gaslamp restaurant and club, the new joint would have to feature live music.
“Live music has always been part of Croce’s,” Croce said in a recent phone conversation with the Troubadour in early February, a few weeks after the new location’s official opening. “We want to keep the local musicians busy.”
Croce’s ties to music are well-documented: Not only was she married to the late singer-songwriter Jim Croce, but they worked together as a folk duo for awhile before his breakthrough success, releasing the 1969 album Croce, with Ingrid co-writing most of the songs.
Taking it to another generation, A.J. Croce is their son and a performer in his own right.
So for Ingrid, the music is nearly as important as the food.
Croce said she and Rock handle bookings themselves and are always open to hearing from musicians whose style fits the ambience of the place. (She also said local musicians know how to get a hold of them. “Word gets around quick.”)
“It’s mostly jazz and singer-songwriter,” she said of the live music schedule. “We do some R&B, and singer-songwriters like Eve Selis and Steve Poltz. Eventually, we’d love to have Gospel music on Sundays.
“Anything outside of that would have to be pretty spectacular” to have a chance of getting booked at Croce’s.
While there is a local focus – San Diego-based trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos is heading up the house band on Wednesday nights and is also featured on many Thursdays – Croce’s Park West is also bringing in some touring bands. Charles Neville of the famed New Orleans combo the Neville Brothers was recently booked for a Sunday brunch.
Some of the local acts on the February calendar included blues/R&B singer Steph Johnson, jazz reedman Tripp Sprague, and R&B powerhouse Lady Dottie & the Diamonds. March has a Sue Palmer date set, plus two nights with Dave Scott and the New Slide Quartet.
Perhaps most intriguing in all of this is the fact that the Wednesday night house band helmed by Castellanos is named the Young Lions – and Croce said it is filled out by local high school and college students. Not since Jeannie and Jimmy Cheatham were hosting their Sunday evening jam sessions at the Bahia 30 years ago has there been a regular opportunity for student musicians to hone their chops alongside established professionals.
Local music fans should have fun seeing how the new venue shakes out in terms of the schedule; as Ingrid said, Croce’s Park West was intentionally set up to be a different kind of venue than the Gaslamp location.
“We were planning to have two restaurants, the one in the Gaslamp for the tourists and visitors – because we recognize the people in our neighborhoods are not coming down to the Gaslamp anymore. We wanted to make sure we also had a neighborhood Croce’s.
“The choice of the new location, at 2760 Fifth Avenue (in the former Avenue 5 spot), came about in a pretty organic fashion, Ingrid said.
“This is our neighborhood,” she explained. “There was a blackout, and we walked up to Avenue 5, and it was so cozy and all our neighbors were there. My husband said to me, ‘Ingrid, this would be a great location for a new Croce’s.’
“We started negotiatons three years ago. We thought we’d have two restaurants… what we really wanted was to have a second home. Croce’s downtown was in memory of Jim Croce, and we wanted to keep that going – and we also wanted a second home that was good for conversation, a community restaurant.”
But with the unanticipated loss of the downtown site – to be honest, a legendary San Diego restaurant, as when they opened it in 1985 one block east of the then-new Horton Plaza mall, it was the first upscale restaurant in a very run-down part of town – Croce and Rock decided to take a slightly different approach to Croce’s Park West than they had originally planned. (Ingrid said the closure of the Gaslamp restaurant has been well-covered elsewhere, and she preferred to not revisit the issue. We respected that wish in the interview.)
“It’s 180 degrees different!” Ingrid said of Croce’s Park West vs. the Gaslamp location. “It’s quiet. We built it with the idea that we’d have five different spaces, distinct areas” within the restaurant: patio, lounge, cozy booths, open dining, and banquettes. (The music performances are in the Expatriate Room.)
“Every single light, everything we did is built for comfort. There’s texture and color – and great tactile experience. And then we have the 60-foot bar. I’ve never sat at a bar before, but that’s where I sit. I absolutely love our bar! We’re enjoying meeting people and welcoming them to Croce’s Park West.
“Originally, we had planned to do a totally different menu, but since we lost Croce’s, the new menu is about 60 to 70 percent from Photographs and Memories: Recipes from Croce’s Restaurant and Jazz Bar, because people really wanted that food and I wanted to make sure they could have it.
“But we also have lot of new dishes that are on the menu, and they’ve gone over extremely well. People are choosing some of the old favorites, but they’re also choosing the new ones.”
The loss of Croce’s Restaurant at the very end of 2013 and the almost immediate opening of Croce’s Park West created a kind of craziness all its own, Croce shared.
“We moved 75 employees – every single employee came with us! We closed Croce’s and did a soft opening” of Croce’s Park West.
“It is a tough business, but you have to love it.”
A tough business indeed (the vast majority of new independent restaurants fold within the first few years), but one that has made it – at least in the San Diego region – Ingrid Croce has arguably become more famous than her late husband.
When asked what percentage of the restaurants patrons come because of Ingrid’s reputation vs. those who still remember Jim Croce, Ingrid thought for a few seconds before answering.
“I’d say 50-50, maybe even more than that.
“For people who knew us in the Gaslamp, they come because they know we moved and they loved the experience. Now people come because they know Jimmy Rock and Ingrid Croce.”
Looking back on the last 30 years, Ingrid said she is happy she was one of the first business owners willing to risk opening in the then-nascent Gaslamp revival – but also feels that, even though it wasn’t their decision to leave, perhaps it was time to go.
“I took pride up until the ballpark [was built]; I think that’s when things started to change. Before the ballpark (Petco) came, it was really beginning to be a really fine live music and dining quarter.
“Once the ballpark came, it changed – it’s become a different animal. It’s a stinkier place and not what I had hoped it would be. I wanted community in the Gaslamp; I thought it would be like Soho, or Philadelphia, but it changed from that. There are a lot of reasons I think that happened.”
Still, Croce said many San Diegans don’t realize how good they have it in terms of the arts. Not only do local theater companies regularly send their better productions off to Broadway, but “we’ve got a great and vibrant music scene and dining scene” – and then rattled off the names of half a dozen music clubs and more than a dozen other restaurants that she and Jim Rock patronize on their rare nights off.
After that, she paused again, as if to catch her breath.
“We feel blessed that we were forced out of the Gaslamp.”
Croce’s Park West
2760 Fifth Ave.