by Sean McManus
When the Italian restaurant La Cena opens on Laura Street next week, it will be the first upscale dinner-only spot not affiliated with a hotel the Central Business District has seen in years.
While owner Jerry Moran said he’s counting on old friends to deliver the initial buzz, La Cena’s success will be a telling signal of whether downtown is ready to stay up past 5 p.m.
While the flood of downtown residents clamoring to get into places such as Berkman Plaza and 11 E. Forsyth seem to be virtually moments away, Moran’s project seems moments premature. While others have flirted with the idea of nighttime dining — banking on business from attorneys working late nights and San Marco residents willing to drive to the Northbank — Moran is really doing it.
But Moran dispelled what he called the myth of anchor customers, people who swing by regularly and keep a place open. La Cena, he said, will be a destination spot, just like the original La Cena on St. Augustine Road.
“That’s the way his other place was,” said attorney Paul Harden, who dined at the old La Cena four nights a week until it closed two summers ago. “It was tucked away in a strip mall on the Southside but the food was good and people went.”
The Jerry Moran Story is one riddled with bad timing and personality conflicts. As a restaurant pioneer, his real estate decisions were the only ones that panned out — he still owns a building in Orange Park that housed his first venture, La Pasta Fresca.
From 1983-1990, Moran and his parents ran La Pasta Fresca, a 200-seat restaurant on Wells Road that Moran said was a style that North Florida had not yet seen — authentic Northern Italian cuisine punctuated with flair and style. Then, with big city dreams of fame and dollar signs, Moran moved the whole crew to Orlando.
At first things went well. They were rated one of the top three restaurants in the Orlando Zagat’s guide and customers from the Orange Park location were making the drive down just for dinner.
But they had trouble with the shopping center. Seminole and Orange Counties have huge impact fees, which can soar into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, making the cost of doing business prohibitive. And a few months after they opened, Orlando released an encephalitis warning and people were encouraged to stay in their homes after 6 p.m.
Defeated, but confident in his product, Moran moved back to Jacksonville in 1994 and opened La Cena on St. Augustine Road. The hole-in-the-wall with about 65 seats served traditional pasta with tomato sauce in addition to Northern Italian fare, such as polenta and sausages, white beans and salami. They slowly attracted a loyal following.
In the meantime, Moran had been speaking to David Surface, who along with the Atlanta-based real estate firm Wilson and Nolan, was one of the partners in the renovation of the Elks Building on Laura Street. Surface was scouting tenants who could serve lunch to downtown professionals. It took over two years to reach a lease agreement. In September 2001, Moran opened Panini Oh!; two months ago it closed. That’s when Moran decided to go back to what he knew.
“From my perspective, I’ve got three issues I’ve got to overcome to pull this off,” said Moran, who is a native of New York — a distinction which he credits for his reputation for being a tad brusque. “Parking, vagrancy and street lights.”
Calling downtown parking after 5 p.m. “the Wild West,” Moran is working on getting the City to light the historic lamps that line Adams Street. As for the vagrants, he said, some police officers don’t tolerate them, but some do.
“I’d say overall the City has been OK,” said Moran. “They’re definitely accessible but in terms of actually getting things done quickly, that’s another matter.”
Moran said one incident of crime against one of his customers could ruin his endeavor.
“I don’t see any reason why this won’t work,” said Lou Nutter, a vice president at CB Richard Ellis who focuses on commercial spaces downtown. “Everybody talks about the chicken and egg thing with residential vs. restaurants. Well, now both pieces are beginning to fall into place and that can only be positive.”
Nutter, whose office is in the First Union building next door to the Omni, said that when he leaves the office late, people are dining and drinking at Juliette’s, so he knows there’s a market for after hours. And Nutter, like others, have noted that Moran has a following.
“We’ve got the new library, the new federal courthouse, City Hall and lots of new building activity all around,” said Harden. “He’ll do fine.”
There has been talk of similar projects on the Northbank recently. One project, conceived by Drew and Scooter Cavins, the owners of the Mossfire Grill in Five Points, called for a $2.2 million seafood restaurant in the vacant Underwood building on Hogan Street. The plan fell through because of a lack of financing.
Ian Chase will manage the dining room at La Cena. Chase has worked at L’Orient in San Marco and b.b.’s on Hendricks Avenue.
“Ian knows every station, just like me,” Moran said. “I think we’re two peas in a pod.”
La Cena will have a wine bar in the front, on Laura Street and, like the old La Cena, will seat about 65 in the dining room. There will not be a private banquet room.
“We’re bound to get hotel business and that means big checks,” said Moran. “We’re working with the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau to get the word out to the concierges.”
And Moran said he’ll even shuttle people in his van back-and-forth from the T-U Center for concerts.
“I like doing that,” he said. “I’ll have to clean the van.”
And as for Moran, who got his start in restaurants in Chapel Hill, N.C. after attending college there, he said he’s grown a lot, too.
“I used to chase people out the door if they left a bad tip,” he said. “Twenty-seven years later, I have learned that not everything is black and white.”
Last week, Moran had a dream that he was working a restaurant in Manhattan, like he did in the 1970s and 1980s. He was wearing a tuxedo but no shoes.
“I’m not sure what that means,” Moran said, turning a bit nostalgic. “Am I worried about opening a restaurant in downtown Jacksonville after having a few others fail in my life? Sure. But everybody knows, chefs are crazy.”