It’s hard to order chicken out. Too often, the chicken itself is hard. Or bland. There always seems to be something more tempting on the menu, too; if the food world were Gilligan’s Island, chicken barely rates as Mary Ann to Ginger. So it really, really means something when I tell you to get the Chicken in the Woods at the Savoy Café. It’s a browned breast of beauty (and I’m a leg man), moist even in the chafing dish case, deeply rich and ‘shroomy. Have it with the mashed potatoes, so you can savor even more of the gorgeous gravy.
For the Savoy isn’t just reopened, as it has been since August 20; it’s now open for dinner, too. Paul and Kathy Shields are amazed by the turn of events, for as Paul says, “Not many people get to have a second crack at it. We had no intention of coming back. We thought it was a done deal, and we were moving on. It was really devastating when we first closed up in December 2008. If I knew now what I know then—I lost it all.”
That meant not just the business, but the family’s heavily mortgaged house, too. “We go to Santa Barbara Community Church,” Shields explained. “It had just completed a merger with Trinity Baptist Church, and they had a big ranch with six bedrooms that was offered to us along with a job as the janitor at the church. We’re still doing those duties.”
But fate intervened in another way, too. “Jim [Gally] from Cantwell’s called a couple times in spring trying to sell,” said Shields, as Cantwell’s had occupied the Figueroa Street spot between the two Savoy incarnations. “I didn’t have the money so had to keep saying no. Finally, Jim insisted as he wanted to retire and he wanted me to have the shop back as I built it. He said he’d carry the note. I don’t have nearly as much debt as I had before—that’s an understatement.”
Experience, however, is something Shields has always been rich in. He worked at the San Ysidro Ranch as executive sous chef, then for 10 years was the director of prepared foods at Lazy Acres, which gave him the notion that a café downtown might make it. “That eight-by-four salad bar and eight-by-four grab ‘n’ go island at Lazy Acres makes up about half their business, so the target was to do that more downtown,” he explained. While that didn’t work during his first attempt at the Savoy—mostly because he expended too much money up front fixing the place up (“the ‘if you build it, they will come’ model,” he calls it)—he says now, “The numbers are coming back really quickly, but people are a little more price conscious; they aren’t spending as much.”
The goal at Savoy is to provide high-quality, fairly priced food and drink; for instance, the wines by the glass don’t cost over $7 (try the Ancient Peaks Sauvignon Blanc for $6). But that said, Shields also admitted, “There’s sometimes a bit of a sticker shock—our salad bar is $9.99 a pound—but it’s still a really good value. People say a Mercedes-Benz is expensive, but the quality is there if you can afford it.” That quality is rooted in the Savoy’s “solid major organic focus,” Shields said. “We buy directly from Givens Farm and Amapola Ranch twice a week.” The café even offers some produce for sale, making it a mini-farmers’ market of sorts.
If all that healthy stuff is too much for you, there’s also an impressive baked-goods section all made in-house by Kathy Shields. “Everything is freshly baked, and the eggs are organic, the flour organic,” Paul pointed out. So there’s an ever-popular carrot cake and a chocolate buttermilk cake that perhaps should be renamed Life by Chocolate, for instead of being some over-rich ganache-bomb, it’s delectable to the last fork. Still, even with the baked goods, the Savoy has made a push for more gluten-free items.
Finally, speaking of ganache, Shields is hoping to make clear that the “Truffle” part of the café’s original name (Savoy Truffles) has outlived its welcome. “It was named after the Beatles song, but it was misleading,” he said. “In fact, when we first opened [chocolatier] Jessica Foster took two weeks to call and then said, ‘My friends are all going to boycott you, do you sell truffles?’ And when I said no, she said, ‘Do you want to sell truffles?’ So I have sold hers off and on since.”
Savor the great healthy flavors at the Savoy Café and Deli, 24 West Figueroa Street. Open Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-8 p.m., and Saturday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Call 962-6611 or see thesavoycafe.com.