Latkes at Claire’s Cafe & Gallery (Photo by Taylor Noel Photography)

Claire’s Cafe & Gallery: Where the Latkes Meet the Lariats

June 28, 2023
By Edie Jarolim

When Claire Johnson opened her namesake café and art gallery in 1986, Catalina was a cowboy town north of Tucson, an unincorporated community on Golder Ranch land. During hunting season, Johnson would arrive before 4 a.m. to serve bacon and eggs to the sportsmen. She always kept her own gun on the premises.

Claire’s Cafe & Gallery (Photo by Taylor Noel Photography)

It was an unlikely place to land for a child of the Sixties who makes a mean matzoh brie. Shades of Blazing Saddles

Cooking Here, There & Everywhere

Johnson left her native Chicago, where she was a buyer and cook for an organic food co-op, for the warmer climes of Tucson in 1979. She worked at Blue Willow, Eclectic Cafe, Oro Valley Country Club, and Lodge at Ventana Canyon before being hired in the mid-1980s as the executive chef of CB Rye, a Jewish deli on Grant and Wilmot.

a person wearing a hat
Claire Johnson of Claire’s Cafe & Gallery (Photo by Taylor Noel Photography)

Johnson said, “I would have stayed at CB Rye for the rest of my life. There was nothing like it in Tucson.” She had 30 people working with her and the restaurant did a brisk business in both dine-in and catering. But, according to Johnson, the investors pulled the plug before giving the deli a chance to earn back returns on their investment.

That was when Johnson decided to strike out on her own, free from corporate strictures. She “found this little place which was nothing in the middle of nothing.” 

Claire’s Cafe & Gallery (Photo by Taylor Noel Photography)
Coming to Catalina

That “little place” was the former Dyna — short for Dynamite — Café.  The Lariat Steakhouse & Saloon was the only other restaurant in Catalina at the time. Johnson said, “When I first bought the space, the highway was two lanes. There was no paving. There were hay rides in the parking lot. It was perfect.”  

She inherited a staff that included Doug Bob, a line cook who was “six-foot-five and easy on the eyes.” He was excellent at his job, Johnson said, and the place was always packed.

She didn’t mess with its success but quickly added professional equipment and applied her own well-honed cooking skills and recipes to the basic breakfast and lunch fare — egg dishes, burgers, sandwiches, and the like — and began using locally grown and organic ingredients whenever possible.  “I started off very simple,” she said. “There was certainly no Jewish food.” Johnson’s early misguided attempt in that direction led to one of the servers posting a dish called “eggs and locks” on the chalkboard specials menu.

a bunch of food on a plate
Lox at Claire’s Cafe & Gallery (Photo by Taylor Noel Photography)

It was some 30 years before Johnson introduced smoked salmon to her patrons again. By that time, the Jewish population had grown in Oro Valley and in the two SaddleBrooke Ranch communities that had sprung up nearby. In addition, a wide range of longtime customers trusted that whatever she put on the table would be tasty.

Getting to Know You

Retaining the original staff helped keep the cowboys and ranchers coming to Claire’s, even if they weren’t familiar with some of the ingredients Johnson brought in or with her spins on some classics – chicken-fried steak breaded with panko, for example. “I probably had the most interesting and diverse crowd you could ever imagine,” Johnson said. “All the notables came. Lloyd Golder of Golder Ranch — well, Golder everything — held court there.” 

a plate of food on a table
Claire’s Cafe & Gallery (Photo by Taylor Noel Photography)

Also among the notables were local artists; Johnson is a silversmith as well as a chef and offered her café as a showcase for her fellow creatives. They included Robert “Shoofly” Shufelt, world-renowned for his graphite pencil drawings of Western subjects. “He has a ranch in Catalina,” Johnson said, “and would draw at the front table.”

But Johnson was primarily interested in helping lesser-known artists. “I’m not a competitor,” she said. “I’m a cooperative. It’s not about money, it’s about presenting people who otherwise would not have the ability to show.” At first, she didn’t even charge consignment fees, asking only that paintings be framed.

a group of people sitting at a table in a room
Claire’s Cafe & Gallery (Photo by Taylor Noel Photography)

That policy didn’t impact the work’s quality — the pieces were always juried — and Johnson soon began to attract art from the greater Tucson community in all genres and subjects, from scratchboard and sculpture to watercolor and oil, from Western and Native American work to Judaica. 

And it wasn’t only artists who benefited from Johnson’s largesse. The cafe soon began hosting free Thanksgiving dinners, on the day before the holiday to allow volunteers to spend time with their families. “The last one we did served 650 people,” Johnson said.

Claire Johnson of Claire’s Cafe & Gallery (Photo by Taylor Noel Photography)

Johnson also provides free meals to shut-ins through the IMPACT of Southern Arizona program and, during the pandemic, the staff at Oro Valley Hospital, Northwest Hospital, and Southern Arizona First Responders were among the recipients of her largesse.

Another of her favorite charitable organizations is Empty Bowls. Her vegan sweet-and-sour cabbage soup, served at the Chinese Cultural Center, is always a big hit. “I bring 19 or 20 gallons and there is none left at the end of the day,” Johnson said. “People just line up waiting for it.”

Back to Jewish Food 

The vegan sweet-and-sour cabbage soup is a variation on one of Johnson’s traditional Jewish recipes, most gleaned from members of a close-knit family that loved spending time together in the kitchen and from the Love and Knishes cookbook by Sara Kasdan.  

Cabbage soup is not always available at Claire’s, but in recent years Johnson has added some Jewish staples to her breakfast menu: scrambled eggs, lox, and sauteed onions; a bagel, lox, and cream cheese platter; cheese blintzes with fresh blueberry or strawberry toppings; latkes; and matzoh brei.

a plate of food on a table
Latkes at Claire’s Cafe & Gallery (Photo by Taylor Noel Photography)

Though available year-round, both the latkes (potato pancakes) and matzo brei (a scramble made with eggs and flat, unleavened bread) are linked to specific holidays, in the latter case Passover. “After Passover, people who bought the giant five-pound boxes, what are they going to do with them? So they donate to me. I have gluten-free matzoh, egg matzoh…” Johnson added, “Every taste is regional. Some people like savory, some people like sweet, some plain. It’s the easiest thing in the world to make to taste.” 

Other dishes that sometimes turn up as specials, usually around the major holidays, include chopped chicken liver and matzoh ball soup. Johnson recommends calling ahead to find out what’s available. 

a box filled with different types of food on a plate
Claire’s Cafe & Gallery (Photo by Taylor Noel Photography)
Community Acceptance

Along with her consistently excellent food, Johnson’s humor and warmth, as well as her generosity, have brought her widespread community acceptance – and then some. Spend 10 minutes in the café, and you’ll notice that Johnson can’t move two feet between tables without a customer calling her over and telling her about a recent vacation they took or a great shopping find. Within a few years of opening Claire’s, Johnson was named “Person of the Year” by The Explorer newspaper.  In 2016, she received the Better Business Bureau’s Good Neighbor Award. 

Claire Johnson of Claire’s Cafe & Gallery (Photo by Taylor Noel Photography)

Perhaps the ultimate sign of being embraced by cowboy country:  The day after getting the Good Neighbor Award, Johnson was made an honorary deputy by Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos. She even has an official badge to prove it, proudly displayed in a glass case at the café’s entryway.

Claire’s Cafe & Gallery is located at 16140 N. Oracle Rd. For more information, visit and follow Claire’s Cafe & Gallery on Facebook.

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Article By

Edie Jarolim has worn many hats, including a sombrero on a one-too-many-margaritas night. She earned a Ph.D. in American literature from New York University and was a guidebook editor at Fodor’s (Random House) and Frommer’s (Simon & Schuster) in New...

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