Cheran Marek enjoys an avocado sandwich and quiche with her sister Susan Ring as her son Luca sleeps by her side and cousin Emma Ring, 9, checks on Luca at Ciao Sidewalk Cafe in Delray Beach. Luca was 9 days old. ‘He ate here in utero,’ Marek said.
Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
By Ron Hayes
They come and go like the tides and tourists in a beach town — cozy little restaurants that open full of high hopes and vanish after a single season.
This year’s latest sandwich nook is next year’s temporary T-shirt shop. Come back in the fall and that fabulous bistro with the Caesar salad to die for has already died and been reborn as an upscale artisan pizza emporium.
And then there’s Ciao.
On Oct. 1, that sidewalk cafe hiding in a shady corner of the Courtyard Shops, just across Atlantic Avenue from the Delray Beach Marriott, reopened for its 35th year.
For longtime residents and seasonal visitors, Ciao is a lot more than the quiche du jour and a homemade chocolate zucchini muffin. It’s a local landmark, a neighborhood gathering spot where staff members stay for decades and youngsters who feasted on peanut butter and banana sandwiches grow into parents who bring in their youngsters for peanut butter and banana sandwiches.
“In season there’s a line out the door,” said Debi Duckett, a local attorney and longtime patron. “The food here is so good I stopped putting ketchup on my mushroom quiche.”
In its 35 years, Ciao has had only two owners, and Elizabeth “Ceci” Durrell has worked for both. She started in 1983, when Susan Bogle owned Ciaos both here and in Kennebunkport, Maine. Durrell was 17 then, and traveled between the two. She’s 47 now, still works at Ciao, and so does her 19-year-old daughter, Maddy.
Ask about picky customers and Durrell remembers the man with the red onion allergy.
“If you put one on his salad by mistake,” she says, “you couldn’t just take it off. He said it would send him to the hospital, so you had to make him a whole new salad.”
Her expression remains intensely nonjudgmental. “We try to accommodate people,” she adds.
Bogle opened her Delray Beach Ciao in 1978 and built the reputation until 1994, when she decided to retire and started searching for a buyer. She found a 50-year-old former substitute teacher and real estate agent from Westchester County, N.Y., searching for a second chapter in life.
“I’d moved down here in 1992,” Diane Sloane says. “One day, my son’s school went on a field trip to the Florida Culinary Institute. He came home and told me I should go there because I liked to cook so much.”
She went. Each semester, the students had to fill out a card describing what they wanted to do after graduation, and Sloane always gave the same answer.
I want to own a 50-seat restaurant that serves health-conscious food.
On April 15, 1994, she started doing just that.
“I was scared to death,” she admits. “Petrified! I’d never really worked in a restaurant before, and Susan didn’t really have recipes. She had an envelope with clippings thrown into it.”
Sloane embraced her culinary school ideal, a modest menu of simple, healthy food.
The orange and lemon juices are fresh-squeezed. The tabouli is made from gluten-free quinoa. The pickles, jams and mango chutney are homemade, and so are the baked goods.
You won’t find a cheeseburger at Ciao, but you can get a fresh roast beef sandwich.
“It’s roasted here but sliced over at Sandwiches By The Sea, because I’m deathly afraid of meat slicers,” Sloane explains. "I don’t mind knives, but meat slicers scare the hell out of me.”
She is a woman of firm opinions.
“We’ve had men working here, but usually they don’t work out,” she says.
“What about Robin and Damian?” someone interjects.
“Well, Robin and Damian were exceptional,” she concedes. “I like men. I just don’t like working with them. They don’t seem to clean as well, and they don’t look for things to do. If it’s slow, a woman will look for something to do.”
At Ciao, prices range from $3.50 to $11.
“One guy stormed out when we raised a slice of quiche from $3.95 to $4.95,” she says. “He was irate.”
Most customers storm back. “I love their fresh soup of the day,” says Ann Margo Cannon, a regular since childhood.
“I love their piña colada fruit smoothies, their avocado sandwich, their Mexican tostada breakfast egg sandwich, their Greek salad with chicken. ...”
On this afternoon, she and her brother, Clayton Peart, chose the daily special, a Sloppy Tom’s — that’s a Sloppy Joe made with ground turkey instead of beef.
“The food is fresh,” Clayton added, “made from scratch and not over-seasoned or over-salty.”
As they were leaving, Cheran Marek was enjoying an avocado sandwich and quiche while her son, Luca, slept by her side. Luca was 9 days old.
“He ate here in utero,” Marek said.
And no doubt he will someday eat here in fact.
Ciao is Italian, of course, and like the Hawaiian aloha, it’s a salutation that can mean both hello and goodbye.
Ciao has been saying hello for 35 years, but Sloane, who turned 70 on Oct. 2, has no intention of saying goodbye.
“At the end of the season, when we’ve heard ‘Do you have anything that’s fat-free, sugar-free or gluten-free’ for the 14,000th time, then we’re ready for a vacation,” she says. “But I’m here ’til I die.”