Steve and Jan Johnston were OK where they were. But the Wright’s Gourmet House manager and Publix associate were also, in the backs of their minds, looking for a new place to call home. So they did. Across from the relocated Chihuly Collection in downtown St. Pete, their sandwich-heavy City’s Bistro is the tweaked, streamlined version of somewhere they’ve been before.
No strangers to the restaurant industry, the husband-and-wife duo — who started their first deli in 1989, when their son Alex, a University of Florida junior, was still a baby in the crib behind the counter — used to own City’s Gourmet in downtown Tampa and City’s Cafe off Fourth Street North in St. Petersburg. Offerings they became known for — weekend brunch, catering and fresh ingredients — have carried over to the new City’s Bistro at 695 Central Ave., open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
“The last place we had was called City’s Cafe, so we knew that we were ready to do it again. But we wanted to get something small,” Steve said. “This became available, and we said, ‘Let’s go for it.’”
The 800-square-foot casual eatery, launched Feb. 9 in the office building that most recently housed Central Perks Cafe, is definitely small, and that presents the Johnstons with a couple of challenges. Downsizing the menu to about a third of what City’s Cafe carried without really knowing what to expect from a downtown audience was tough; plus, there isn’t the 3,000 square feet they had to work with on Fourth Street.
Luckily, less space doesn’t impact the couple’s approach to food. Almost everything is made in-house — from the soups that accompany their daily soup-and-sandwich special and sides such as coleslaw and fusilli pasta salad, down to the salad dressings.
“You can taste the difference,” Jan said.
Chicken salad starts with chicken on the bone that’s poached in water, “just like your grandma would make it.” On the order counter, sweets baked by Jan (think brownies and cookies) are on display in a dessert case. And corned beef, roast beef and turkey are roasted daily.
“Growing up, I remember making a turkey sandwich the day after Thanksgiving and how good it tastes, so that’s what we’re trying to do here,” Steve said, adding that their turkey’s roasted, then sliced thinner than you’d cut at home. “But it’s by no means shaved turkey. You can tell that it’s real turkey breast and there’s no preservatives, there’s no artificial anything. And it tastes a lot different than the stuff most people are used to, except for [on] that one day.”
And his philosophy on bread? It doesn’t matter how many house-made ingredients there are, because if City’s Bistro puts them on crappy bread, their efforts are pointless. According to Steve, bread choices around town are very limited at the wholesale level, so they receive par-baked sourdough once a week from a San Francisco company they’ve had a relationship with for 25 years or so.
They also use a “really nice” multigrain bread that’s made semi-locally, meaning the product starts in New York, comes down to Orlando where it’s finished and cut, and gets delivered to the bistro.
In addition to dedicating many sandwich combos to their quality sourdough, rye is used to pull off some of the simple menu’s most popular orders, including the dreamy, vegetarian Fresh Mozzarella, featuring basil-pesto mayo and tomato, and classic Reuben with corned beef, which tourists and people visiting from up north have complimented, says Steve, who concentrates on back of house while Jan runs the front.
Lead cook Aaron Long was a perfect fit for the Johnstons. Long, who used to own the EDGE District’s Spot Bar & Grill with his wife Jackie and has worked in coffee for a few years since, says he was itching to get back into the kitchen.
“[The Spot] was about this size, which is why I like this place so much,” he said. “It feels like home still.”
Long’s coffee background and knowledge are put to use at City’s Bistro, too. He’s teaching the duo about roasting, helping them find a great house blend and the like. Without competing directly with nearby businesses, the goal is to introduce some nice iced coffees and have a stellar selection overall.
Showcasing eats that aren’t part of the regular lineup, Saturday brunch allows the 26-seat bistro to get creative. They’ve served dishes like Benedicts and stuffed French toast with caramelized apples and cranberries during the weekend service, alongside their all-day sandwich fare, which also includes wraps and salads.
The newcomer is targeting a few different audiences: employees of the building they’re located in and other downtown dwellers looking for food, whether they’re workers or visitors. The bistro, which plans to host a grand opening celebration and extend its outdoor sidewalk seating to the end of the block, has started to slowly offer delivery, and would like to get into doing more platters, a convenience that’s resulted in lots of repeat business for Jan and Steve in the past. With a 24-hour notice, they can fill catering requests over the phone, a system that makes the ordering experience for customers a breeze.
The Johnstons aren’t the only sandwich (or coffee) slingers on the artsy blocks between Sixth and Eighth streets. But rather than consider their welcoming neighbors as competition, Steve says he views them as food scene compatriots that can only help City’s Bistro succeed.
“There’s a lot of pieces of the pie downtown, but it’s growing leaps and bounds. And it needs to,” the co-owner said. “We looked at downtown about 20 years ago, and we didn’t feel that they were ready for us down here. So I think as time goes on, we’re seeing a higher level of restaurants coming in, especially in the last three or four years.
“I use the example of, like, when we go to New York and we go to a little deli or a little diner, it really doesn’t matter where you go — it’s always good. And if you think about it for a minute, the reason it’s good is because it has to be, because it would be gone if it wasn’t.”
[DISCLOSURE: CL Food + Drink Editor Meaghan Habuda worked with City's Bistro co-owner Jan Johnston at Publix for a time.]