Sweet Basil’s Cafe, the beloved restaurant and community gathering place in Cannon Beach known for its Creole-Cajon flavor, is closing due to the coronavirus pandemic.
With the release of the state’s reopening guidelines for restaurants, John Sowa, the chef and owner, realized the eatery could not survive. Social distancing measures would have limited seating to three tables inside — four at the most.
“I don’t care how small you are, three tables doesn’t cut it,” he said.
Sowa is among a handful of local celebrity chefs distinguished with long service in Clatsop County, a slew of Iron Chef Goes Coastal trophies and a loyal international audience.
A Brooklyn, New York native, Sowa studied cooking in New Orleans at K-Paul’s with Paul Prudhomme, America’s foremost proponent of Creole and Cajun cuisine.
Sowa and his wife, Debbie Anderson, originally from Seaside, bypassed opportunities at Portland restaurants after a visit to Ecola State Park.
“I looked at that vista, and I said, ‘This is where I want to be.’ We changed our whole game plan,” Sowa said.
He and Anderson opened Lil’ Bayou in Seaside 20 years ago, at the location of a former pizzeria.
Sowa built a reputation for using local ingredients and innovative presentation, all with a distinct Creole-Cajun flavor.
He moved operations to Cannon Beach in 2007, at first serving lunch only, then expanding to a full dinner menu featuring local produce, meats and fish, prepared with the distinctive notes of New Orleans.
Over the next 14 years Sowa attracted a loyal clientele of visitors and locals alike, bringing musicians, diners and others into an intimate but sophisticated setting.
A string of awards and accolades helped burnish his reputation as one of the county’s top chefs.
On Friday nights, he said, the cafe was filled “shoulder to shoulder.”
Sowa closed the cafe in March because of government restrictions on seated dining to stem the spread of the coronavirus. He eventually reopened for takeout on the weekends.
Three weeks in, Sowa rejected the takeout model.
“You eat with your eyes first,” he said. “There’s not much eye appeal in a plastic box, or a cardboard box. What I do at the window here is just not going to make up for the three seats inside. I certainly couldn’t bring in the same quality or the same quantity of food that I’m used to doing, and I’d have to almost go down to a fast food operation. That’s not what I want to do.”
While Sowa won’t be operating in Cannon Beach, he announced plans to team up with Silver Salmon Grille owner Jeff Martin in Astoria to work as the restaurant’s executive chef.
The restaurant’s traditional menu will be pared down, with Sowa’s Cajun offerings added, Martin said.
“His restaurants have been our favorites,” Martin said. “It’s a fantastic collaboration. I’m looking forward to it. I’m excited to learn something new.”
Will an intimate cafe like Sweet Basil’s ever come back to the North Coast dining scene?
“We’re going to recover from this, but we’re going to recover differently,” Sowa said. “Because I don’t ever see it going back to exactly how it was before March 23. Not in my lifetime. I’m 76. I hope it comes back, because it’s part of my life. We just have to wait and see. It’s something we don’t have control over.”