Over Memorial Day weekend, two long-standing Downtown San Clemente restaurants hosted customers for the last time and began the process of closing their doors.
Café Calypso, a traditional gathering place with its open courtyard facing out on Avenida Del Mar, closed after 21 years serving the community, as did Village Mediterranean Rim after 25 years in business.
Chen Yen of Café Calypso told the San Clemente Times that her lease’s termination on May 31, combined with the rising costs of running her business and rent—the latter of which she couldn’t negotiate down—contributed to her decision to close the eatery.
After her family escaped the killing fields of Cambodia during Pol Pot’s reign in the 1970s and landed in Orange County, Yen received an American education and began her professional career working at a donut shop and bakery distribution business run by members of her family.
She stumbled on Café Calypso’s space downtown and took it over in 2002, serving breakfast and lunch to passersby along Del Mar and joining the strong community of business owners in the area.
“They’re pretty much my family,” Yen said of her neighboring business owners. “There’s not a day where I pass by anywhere I don’t know. I always (see) somebody, family and friendships that I’ve built throughout the 21 years.”
The courtyard out front that customers have long enjoyed throughout Café Calypso’s lifespan was a major reason for the business’ success, especially in the days before outdoor dining patios became more common in San Clemente.
Inside, however, operations were always troublesome since Yen started using the space that was previously a different café. Being inside a building over 100 years old came with its own problems in addition to having only limited room for kitchen equipment.
“Constantly, it’s (been) a battle for me,” said Yen.
It was time to put an end to those struggles, she said, especially given that Café Calypso’s charm grew ever more banal as visitors to Del Mar can experience al fresco dining at numerous places.
The restaurant’s closure saddens her when she thinks about the time she put into it and her employees, some of whom have worked with her for more than 15 years. But, she said, there is positivity to be found.
Yen has told frequent customers to visit Calypso’s Sunrise Café on El Camino Real, another San Clemente staple she owns, and she’s also been working on finding her former employees other places to work.
Going forward, she is looking to pour more of herself into Sunrise Café and having less to worry about.
“Twenty-one years in the restaurant business (is) a long time,” Yen said. “It’ll give me some time to focus on myself, put in some traveling time, and enjoy life a bit.”
Just across the street, Nour Tillo, owner of Village Mediterranean Rim, talked about coming to San Clemente in 1998 without having ever spent any time in town.
A business opportunity attracted him as a young man, who was coming off a break from operating health-conscious restaurants in Los Angeles. Tillo borrowed $25,000 to take over the restaurant at 123 Avenida Del Mar.
He spent a few months using the previous menu before starting to steadily build upon it with his own knowledge and background, taking time to travel to Santa Monica weekly and find fresh products.
“We just took a lot of dishes from the old Mediterranean, whether from northern Africa (like) tagine or any other thing,” said Tillo. “I changed them in a way, modernized it to use all the California products to create a tapas menu on food that people really enjoyed.”
The last two weeks have been emotional for Tillo, he added, as people have come in and shared love and compassion.
“I really didn’t realize that I was able to affect and leave a huge impact on a lot of people in San Clemente,” he said. “People (actually had) tears in their eyes when they came in. That thing, for me, was honestly one of the most important things I’ve done.”
Over the last “phenomenal, wonderful 25 years,” Tillo also enjoyed the creative aspect of his business, but he felt like now was the time to end the current chapter of his life.
At 66 years old, he still is an athlete, as he likes to cycle and do mountain climbing, and he added that he wants to take advantage of his healthy state while still possible.
“I feel I’m leaving on top, actually,” Tillo said. “That, for me, was very important.”