LARGO — It was an evening in early October when the restaurant quietly changed hands.
Dominique Christini, capping a 35-year run at his iconic French restaurant Cafe Largo, hung his proverbial chef’s toque for the last time.
That was it — c’est fini. 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 during a recent phone call.
Christini’s knees probably could have used a rest sooner — he mulled over the idea of selling the restaurant for several years and fielded more than a few prospective suitors. But he couldn’t leave without knowing his restaurant was in good hands.
When the opportunity to finally sell presented itself, Christini wanted to make sure he passed the torch to people who would honor his restaurant’s legacy. Yvonne and Linus Rickenbach, a couple of hospitality lifers from Switzerland, seemed to fit the bill perfectly.
Now, nearly 36 years later, Christini is enjoying retirement and Cafe Largo has new owners.
Of course, one could be forgiven for not knowing this right away. Things still look — and feel — very much the same.
The furniture hasn’t changed, and dining here is still a white tablecloth affair. The walls inside the side dining room are still 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 talk without raising your voice, and the European aesthetic and hospitality extends to the tempo of a long, leisurely pace.
But some things have changed. How could they not? The Rickenbachs are Swiss, not French, and though the menu winds comfortably through 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,” Yvonne Rickenbach said. “This is really a restaurant you’d find in Switzerland.”
Like so many other tourists, the couple fell in love with the Tampa Bay area on vacation several years ago.They dined at Cafe Largo before the pandemic and fell hard for the quaint restaurant, tucked away in the back courtyard of the Galleria Plaza off Indian Rocks Road.
They liked the service and the food. The ambience and the decor. It felt like a restaurant back home.
“We liked it and we said, ‘Why don’t we make another adventure in our life?,’“ Rickenbach said. And so, they made an offer.
Leaving Switzerland — their jobs, their families — for a new place wasn’t easy. There were delays with visas and paperwork. But even if the geographical setting was unfamiliar, the professional territory was not.
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Linus Rickenbach grew up in a hotel-operating family and learned the business as a child, watching an older generation with the ropes before getting into the business himself. He met his future wife working in hotels and restaurants in Lucerne.
The couple ooze old world European hospitality: Yvonne greets guests, waits on tables and pours wine while Linus personally delivers most dishes. A meal here takes time, and diners aren’t rushed at the end of the evening. (Ask for your check, or you’ll be lingering a while longer.)
The European menu leans heavy on the French classics, and dining here can feel a lot like stepping back in time, or at least across the pond.
Plates are decorated with a sprig of fresh rosemary. Proteins are always accompanied by a selection of vegetables — carrots, asparagus and potatoes. Sauces are undeniably French: bordelaise, bearnaise — smooth with butter and prodded with cognac, champagne and, of course, red wine.
French onion soup ($9) arrives under a bubbling cap of caramelized Gruyere, while beef tartare ($18) gets a cognac wash and comes paired with capers, diced onions and buttery slices of brioche. Escargots ($13) are served with an herbed compound butter while a roasted duck breast a l’orange ($34) is about as classic as it gets: draped under a light, flavorful sauce, paired with crispy-edged potato gratin and orange supremes.
For dessert, the short selection doesn’t stray far from the familiar: Creme brulee ($9) cracks with the firm tap of the back of a spoon to reveal pale yellow custard, 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 one vegetarian entree on the current menu — a seasonal ravioli preparation ($23). As time passes, the menu might lean more broadly on a wider spectrum 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 California 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 are enjoying the area and the warm welcome bestowed by their now-regular group of diners. Many of Christini’s former fans stuck around for the restaurant’s new generation.
Along with some menu changes, there’s more in the works: Later this month, the couple will host the second installment 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 pending the ongoing labor shortage, Rickenbach said she looks forward to the day when — fully staffed — she can take a step back to work on bigger picture aspects of the restaurant: decor, menu design and events.
For now, the couple are just happy to adjust to their new lives in their new home.
It might be different, but it still feels familiar.
If you go
Where: 12551 Indian Rocks Road, Largo. 727-596-6282. cafelargorestaurant.com.
Hours: Dinner, 5-10 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.
Prices: Appetizers, $13 to $19; entrees, $34 to $58.
Don’t skip: Duck a l’orange, chocolate mousse.
Details: Cash, credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.