Joe Utovac sits on a large chair inside the dining room at Utro’s Café, holding his cane in one hand and gesturing towards the walls of his recently closed restaurant with the other. Once adorned with hundreds of pieces of San Pedro memorabilia, the walls now have blank spots made by patrons taking a piece of the café home in remembrance.
“There’s a story behind every piece of memorabilia here,” says the elder Utovac, 75, pointing with his cane to a wall filled with vintage photographs, trophies, nautical signage, and the famous Utro’s Café caricatures by late local artists (and brothers) Bob and Pete Bentovoja.
The memorabilia on the walls told the story of arguably San Pedro’s proudest generation, the “born and raised” baby boomers who came of age going to the original Utro’s Crest Café on 22nd Street in the ‘70s and following it to the harbor at Berth 73 in the ‘90s.
Utovac even declared as much with the café’s original awning, which read “Home of the Proudest People on the Coast.”
Since the restaurant stopped serving Devine Burgers and beer on December 30, and with some time left on its lease, the café has become a makeshift antique shop until February 4, when its lease is officially up.
Joe, the burly and lively retired crane operator, holds court while his wife Cheryl and daughter Nicole help navigate the revolving door of past and present customers stopping by to pay their respects and maybe purchase a one-of-a-kind memento off the wall.
“This wasn’t how we wanted things to end,” admits Nicole, 44, who’s worked in the restaurant her entire adult life. “If I had known last year was going to be our last summer here, we would’ve done things differently.”
The sudden closure of Utro’s Café, a San Pedro institution since 1976, came as a bit of a surprise to the Utovac family. The way Joe explains it, the restaurant had been on a month-to-month lease “for a while” and was aware changes were coming but admits he didn’t know when. He also knew that the café’s current building, built in the 1930s and part of the West Harbor project, needed several critical repairs that, if done, would require the restaurant to be closed for an extended amount of time.
Also, had they come back after the repairs and become part of West Harbor, their rent would’ve quintupled from the significantly below-market rate they were paying.
So, the writing was on the wall that the café’s time had come. Still, receiving a two-week termination notice after being a tenant for 28 years (at the Berth 73 location) was a tough pill to swallow.
“I just wish we had one more summer to do it right,” says Nicole.
END OF AN ERA
Utro’s has a reputation for going out with a bang.
In 1976, 29-year-old Joe Utovac purchased the original Cresta Café on 22nd Street, which had been around since the 1950s. It quickly became a famous neighborhood watering hole for generations of San Pedrans, known for its good burgers, cheap beer, and colorful characters.
“We were a workingman’s bar,” says Joe.
When the 22nd Street location was forced to close after the property owner sold the land to build condos, the bar threw an epic goodbye party that included a classic car parade and concert by The Wingtips.
The party was so big that it ended up in the pages of the L.A. Times. According to an article from July 9, 1989, many cars had black signs that read: “Utro’s Dies Hard.”
After a six-year hiatus, Joe opened Utro’s Café at Berth 73, across the parking lot from Ports O’ Call Village near the fishing boat slips. For years, it was one of the only restaurants in town with a legit outdoor patio.
“We opened October 3, 1995, the same day O.J. [Simpson] was acquitted,” laughs Joe. “We tried giving away free orange juice that day, but it wasn’t very successful.”
In mid-December of last year, the Utovacs announced the pending closure of the restaurant on social media. The news spread like wildfire, causing the restaurant to have its busiest days in years. It wasn’t necessarily a sendoff like 1989, but it was something.
While the restaurant is gone for good, there’s talk of continuing the brand by selling apparel online. Their son, Joey Utovac, a longshoreman and clothing designer, may continue selling Utro’s merchandise through his website cavotu.com.
Joe and Cheryl are still coming to terms with not having the restaurant anymore but are looking forward to relaxing soon. Still weighing her future options, Nicole is grateful for all the love and support her family has received since announcing the closure.
“So many of my dad’s old friends he hasn’t seen in years have been coming by to say hi and reminisce with everyone,” says Nicole. “That part of it has been really great. We truly feel the love.” spt
Utro’s Café is still selling equipment and memorabilia most weekdays from 12 p.m. – 5 p.m. through Feb. 4. Call (310) 547-5022 for more info.