John Horne was driving down Gulf of Mexico Drive with his wife, Amanda, contemplating a major purchase. It was a chilly (for Florida) January day, and the gregarious restaurateur realized the major investment he was about to make — a fine dining restaurant with a 50-year history of delighting local foodies — is exactly what some of his industry pals were leaving behind. Ray and D’Arcy Arpke were stepping away from Euphemia Haye on Longboat Key after more than 40 years. Sean Murphy sold Beach Bistro after 36 years. J.P. and Shay Knaggs walked away from downtown Sarasota’s Bijou Cafe after 35 years. It was a tough time in the restaurant industry, and it wasn’t about to get any easier. And yet, here was Horne, ever the entertainer, always the optimist, one week away from entering the fine-dining fray. What did the others know that he didn’t?

New owners John and Amanda Horne. Photography by Wyatt Kostygan.


“Have I lost my mind?” he asked Amanda. The purchase in question, of course, is the St. Armands mainstay Cafe L’Europe. The front of the restaurant famously served as John Ringling’s sales office in Sarasota’s earliest days. Then in 1973, Dutch immigrants Titus Letschert and Norbert Goldner opened an eatery they hoped would bring classy European fare to locals and tourists alike. As countless restaurants launched and closed around it, Cafe L’Europe sustained its excellence. In other words, it’s not just any restaurant Horne was buying. After all, it’s where Arpke, Knaggs, Harry Christensen (of Harry’s Continental Kitchen fame), and countless successful local chefs got their start. This is Cafe L’Europe we’re talking about. The Grande Dame. Horne first visited the property at 431 St. Armands Cir. in the early 1980s while he was working as a server at Fast Eddie’s on Anna Maria Island.

Fried chicken sandwich. Photography by Wyatt Kostygan.


“Man, it was a special treat to go down there,” Horne says. “I can remember going there as a family for my parents’ anniversary. It was that special place to go.” He even remembers what he ate. There was an escargot appetizer (loved it), and the entree . . . duck. “I’m a duck nut,” Horne says, recalling the only dish that’s remained on the menu for all of Cafe L’Europe’s existence. “I can still remember eating duck there. It was that memorable. Incredible.”

Shrimp linguine. Photography by Wyatt Kostygan.


It’ll be a delicate balance to marry that tradition—the special place to go—with the need to satisfy a shifting population with evolving expectations for fine dining. Visit any big city and check out the hippest fine dining spots. You see jeans. You hear rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop. It’s loud. They are alters to foodiedom. Sarasota isn’t quite there yet, but its dining scene is changing, alright. So where does that leave Cafe L’Europe?

“I’ve felt like a steward, I truly have,” Horne says of his eight months at the helm. “I felt like it’s our turn to steward this awesome property.”

If there’s ever been a restaurateur up to the task, it’s Horne. This is a man who built an empire that includes four (soon-to-be five) Anna Maria Oyster Bar locations. A man who bet on himself in 1995 when he bankrolled the first location on City Pier. A man whose restaurants are so well known they’re a local household acronym: AMOB. He knows this area and the wants and needs of its dining public. Horne and his magnetic personality are as much a fixture here as the restaurant he plans to transform.


To do this, he needs a chef who understands the delicate balance between exclusivity and accessibility. Enter Jose Cuarta. He was tapped as executive chef after nearly three years in the kitchen at the Michelin-rated Tampa hotspot Oak & Ola, where he studied under James Beard award winning chef (and Emeril Lagasse protege) Anne Kearney. Intense and exacting, Cuarta’s passion is as evident in the way he discusses food as it is in the way he prepares it. He believes in minimizing dishes. Keeping it simple. A balance of flavors. His is a never-ending pursuit of culinary perfection. If there’s an ingredient that can be made in-house at Cafe L’Europe, it is. The lunch menu overhaul, which debuted this past summer, set the tone for the restaurant’s future.

For the pièce de résistance on his fried chicken sandwich, the Kentucky native turned his new office desk into a fermenting station. You won’t find files in the file cabinet. You won’t find pens and paper clips in the drawers. You’ll find the key ingredient to the restaurant’s “bottom drawer sauce”, a tangy honey glaze with a special kick that comes from the jars of fermenting hot peppers, carrots, onions and more that hide in Chef Cuarta’s desk.

Is the fried chicken sandwich distinctively European? Eh. Maybe not, but three distinct layers of crunch —the toasted bun, the pickled veggies, and the fried chicken breading—hit perfectly with the sauce’s spice and sweetness. “That’s definitely where the Kentucky comes in,” he admits. The menu evolution alone proves that this is not your grandfather’s Cafe L’Europe. There’s the L’Europe smashburger that — you guessed it—goes above and beyond what you thought a burger could be. It starts with the meat, which is locally sourced from Tampa’s Providence Cattle Company. When you eat the L’Europe smashburger, you’re biting into top-quality, antibiotic-free, growth-hormone free, beef that has never crossed state lines. It is decidedly, proudly Florida. The onion jam that gives it a distinct and unique umami boost? Maybe it’s European. Maybe it’s from another plane of existence altogether. Paired with smoked cheddar, house-made pickles, dijonnaise and the lightly toasted sesame bun, it’ll make you question whether all those burgers you ate in the past were really burgers at all.

Fear not, L’Europe loyalists, across-the-pond favorites remain. Try the croque madame. We’re not talking Oscar Mayer deli ham here. This is specially imported Jambon de Paris, melty gruyere, bechamel, dijon mustard and a perfectly fried egg. Remember when I told you Cuarta was a perfectionist? The sunny-side-up egg is a lovely round, precisely cooked topper that begs for your knife and fork to do their thing ASAP.

And the quiche? C’mon. It’s a light, fluffy, pillowy dream. The crust is buttery, flaky, yet not-too-rich. The custard is firm and melty at first bite, set atop a bed of salty bacon and caramelized onions, gruyere and a perfectly browned on top to boot. It’s unlike any quiche you’ve ever had, borne from hours and hours of Cuarta’s trial and error. He and his team landed on a process where they blind bake the pie shell, layer in the custard again, and again, and again . . . and another layer, until it’s ready to slow bake for just over 40 minutes.
“I think it’s one of those dishes that just translates,” Cuarta says. “No matter how old or young you are. It’s a good, classic dish no matter who you are.” You can taste the time it took to perfect it. And that’s just lunch. The dinner menu will see a similar overhaul, but some Cafe L’Europe standbys like the aforementioned duck will remain — but perhaps with a twist. “We’re in Florida,” says Cuarta, “so why wouldn’t you do a duck l’orange?”

Not only is he shaking up the menu, Cuarta is also busy upskilling his new coworkers. “What I really, really admire about him is he’s teaching all the time,” Horne says. “He is constantly showing a sous chef or a new chef or a new cook on the line, here’s what I’m doing and here’s why I’m doing it. The guy teaches 24-7.”


Cafe L’Europe has been the backdrop to half a century’s worth of celebrations. Fancy first dates, schmoopy proposals, innumerable birthdays, anniversaries and moments of joy. The backdrop itself will evolve along with the menu. Expect a completely renovated interior this year that intends to reflect the restaurant’s culinary evolution while nodding to its elegant past. “Special” is a word Horne returns to again and again when discussing Cafe L’Europe. When contemplating that first impression he had of the restaurant, he takes a moment, smiles. “You know,” he says, blue eyes lighting up. “It was just an awesome restaurant. Yeah. You could always count on it being just fabulous.” He’s betting the same for Sarasota diners. So, has John Horne lost his mind? Not if you ask him.