LARGO — It was an evening in early October when the restaurant silently changed hands.
Dominique Christini, capping a 35-year run at his iconic French restaurant Cafe Largo, hung up his proverbial chef’s hat for the last time.
That was it – it’s over. It was time to retire.
“When you’ve been standing in front of the stove for 50 years, your knees need a rest,” he said in a recent phone call.
Christini’s knees probably could have rested sooner – he pondered the idea of selling the restaurant for several years and presented more than a few potential suitors. But he couldn’t leave without knowing that his restaurant was in good hands.
When the opportunity to finally sell presented itself, Christini wanted to make sure she passed the torch to people who would honor her restaurant’s legacy. Yvonne and Linus Rickenbach, a Swiss lifer couple, seemed a perfect fit.
Now Christini is enjoying her retirement and Cafe Largo has new owners.
Of course, one could be forgiven for not knowing right away. Things always look – and feel – pretty much the same.
The furniture hasn’t changed, and dining here is still a white tablecloth affair. The walls inside the side dining area still have the color – and texture – of milk chocolate mousse, and the circular bar in the corner of the room still imbues a certain rustic alpine charm. You can still hear yourself speak without raising your voice, and the European aesthetic and hospitality continues in a long, leisurely beat.
But some things have changed. How could they not? The Rickenbachs are Swiss, not French, and though the menu winds comfortably into Francophile territory, the duo have put their own stamp on the country’s cuisine.
“Even though we have the French flag outside, we are pure Swiss,” said Yvonne Oesterle. “This is truly a restaurant one would find in Switzerland.”
Like so many other tourists, the couple fell in love with the Tampa Bay area while on vacation several years ago. They dined at Cafe Largo before the pandemic and fell in love with the quaint restaurant, tucked away in the backyard of the Galleria Plaza off Indian Rocks Road.
They liked the service and the food. The atmosphere and the decor. It was like a restaurant at home.
“We loved it and said, ‘Why don’t we have another adventure in our lifetime? ‘” Rickenbach said. And so, they made an offer.
Leaving Switzerland — their jobs, their families — for a new place was not easy. There were delays with visas and paperwork. But even if the geographical framework was not familiar, the professional territory was not.
Linus Rickenbach grew up in a family of hoteliers and learned the trade as a child, shadowing an older generation before going into the business himself. He met his future wife working in hotels and restaurants in Lucerne.
The couple exude old-world European hospitality: Yvonne greets guests, serves tables and pours wine while Linus personally delivers most of the food. A meal here takes time and diners are in no rush at the end of the evening. (Ask for your check, or you’ll linger a little longer.)
The European menu leans heavily on French classics, and dining here can feel like stepping back in time, or at least crossing the pond.
The plates are decorated with a sprig of fresh rosemary. Protein is always accompanied by a selection of vegetables – carrots, asparagus and potatoes. The sauces are undeniably French: Bordelaise, Béarnaise — smooth with butter and seasoned with cognac, champagne and, of course, red wine.
French onion soup ($9) arrives under a bubbling cap of caramelized Gruyère cheese, while beef tartare ($18) is washed down in cognac and accompanied by capers, diced onions and slices of brioche with butter. The snails ($13) are served with a butter made with herbs while a roast duck breast with orange ($34) is almost classic: topped with a light and tasty sauce, accompanied by a gratin crispy potatoes and orange supremes.
For dessert, the short selection doesn’t stray far from the familiar: the crème brûlée ($9) crackles with the firm tap of the back of a spoon to reveal a pale yellow creme, and three dollops of dark chocolate mousse (11 $) arrive nestled next to poached pears.
Like its predecessor, the menu is still a tough sell for vegetarians. There is a vegetarian entree on the current menu – a seasonal ravioli preparation ($23). Over time, the menu could draw more heavily on a wider range of European influences as the couple find their footing with new and old clientele, Rickenbach said.
The wine list is almost exclusively French, but the couple plan to change that in the coming months, introducing more Spanish, Italian and Californian selections.
It’s not easy being so far away from family, Rickenbach said, but direct flights from Tampa International Airport to Zurich, Switzerland help. And the couple take advantage of the region and the warm welcome given by their now regular group of guests. Many old Christini fans have stayed for the restaurant’s new generation.
Along with a few menu changes, there’s more in the works: Later this month, the couple will host the second episode of what they hope will be a monthly wine tasting and themed dinner. (This month’s theme is Spain, and pairings will be served with tapas.) And while awaiting the current labor shortage, Rickenbach said she looks forward to the day when, with a full staff, she will be able to step back to work on larger aspects of the restaurant: decor, menu design and events.
For now, the couple are just happy adjusting to their new life in their new home.
It may be different, but it’s still familiar.
If you are going to
Where: 12551 Indian Rocks Road, Largo. 727-596-6282. cafelargorestaurant.com.
Opening hours: Dinner, from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. from Wednesday to Saturday.
Price: Appetizers, $13 to $19; entrees, $34 to $58.
Not to be missed: Duck à l’orange, chocolate mousse.
Details: Cash, credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.