If there is anything that this past year has taught us all, it’s to pay attention to what matters most in our lives. It’s also to appreciate our comforts, our communities and what brings us real joy. David Jackman, chef and owner of Chocolate restaurant next to Bookshop Santa Cruz, has certainly had time to reflect on these things. As a business owner, he had to evaluate how to stay solvent during a pandemic. But as someone who has embraced the tides of more than two decades in the restaurant industry, his perspective is refreshingly positive. He sees an uptick in ethical sourcing, in gratitude for service, in appreciation for simple, quality ingredients. And, as someone who has helmed one of the only, original downtown outdoor patio dining spaces all of these years, he is heartened to see the al fresco culinary experience catching on once and for all.
What year did you open Chocolate? And in what ways have things changed since then?
In 1999. We’ve been through a lot of different phases. What’s changed a lot is our role in the community. There is more emphasis on sourcing and organic now than when we started 21 years ago, when it felt like in many ways we were more committed to that than our customers were.
It’s about our entire ecosystem and our economy, and that understanding is really evolving among people.
A restaurant like ours spends between $20,000 to $30,000 a month on groceries and where is that going? Is that going to industrial farming, is it going to small, organic, local farmers? Is it going to innovative cacao farms in South America? These are choices that we make every month, where to spend that money.
When we started out 20 years ago, we were importing a lot of wines from Italy and using a lot of imported Italian products, but over time we have tried to eliminate that cargo over the sea. It’s something we’re addressing on an ongoing basis.
In what ways do you think the restaurant has evolved over the years?
One way it has evolved has to do with service. I think hospitality, our expectations of service, are becoming more fine tuned as a restaurant. And the hospitality that we offer our customers is now more important than ever. Something I started noticing before Covid, and now more than ever, is that we get more appreciation from our customers. During the year before Covid we were noticing verbal appreciation and gratitude on levels I’d never seen in 20 years.
It’s not all about the pandemic, it’s a trend that was happening before. It has to do with a change I’ve noticed in young people over the past few years. We talk about young people in many different terms, but I’ve found that young people possess more empathy and kindness and more spirit of hospitality than I could ever have expected 15 years ago.
People are now more than ever aware of the high value of compassion, and that translates to heartfelt hospitality.
How has it stayed the same?
From the very beginning, it was all about open air dining. Heated patio dining. It implies that it is an all season way of dining. During Covid it was not a shift for us, it was just a greater focus.
What have you learned during that time as a business owner? As a restaurant owner on Pacific Ave?
It’s about finding a balance, it’s about carving out a fun, safe space to offer people hospitality in the middle of a busy downtown. Not everyone is interested in people watching, and we consider that most of our guests are there to be with each other, and that means offering them some level of seclusion on our patio. From the very beginning we’ve done that with plantings. Everyone likes garden dining.
Talk about the introduction of cocktails, and how that addition has been for customers.
We introduced cocktails two years ago, so this will be our third summer. But I’d been thinking about it for 10 years and here’s what changed. I was beginning to see other restaurants able to offer a cocktail menu that their customers were sticking to. So I asked myself: What does that mean?
I hesitated, because I didn’t want to become a bar. And we did not want to become a place where we were at the mercy of replicating someone’s experience from somewhere else. A restaurant creates its recipes with ingredients that are indigenous to that restaurant. Our offerings are our creations and I felt that we were now at a place culturally here that people would welcome that. You don’t want to be at the mercy of people’s past experiences somewhere else, you want them to come get what you do.
We don’t use national brands, even our aperitivos are made from scratch, our mixers, our lime juice is squeezed fresh every day. All fruits and infusions. The same way we make our food, and it’s not one thing from the shelf mixed with another. It’s working out very well, people are tasting the difference. And they groove with it. Someone comes in and says they want a cranberry cosmo, and instead we happen to have strawberry syrup that we are making every week, so we make it with that and they love it. Or they are drinking mezcal martinis made with Mutari cacao, and they love that.
Our most popular cocktails are the passion fruit margarita and the chocolate mint mojito. And we have another that is very popular called the Bourbon Bee, made with bourbon from Scotts Valley (Westside Water) with local honey, ginger juice and lemon, served over ice. We also use Alta coffee to infuse vodka for our White Russians.
Using local products and their simplicity to make our cocktails is very fun, and in many ways it’s what people visit a place to experience.
How do you stay inspired in your cooking?
That’s a really important question, because over the past 21 years there has been an ebb and flow. I stay inspired by what I see at the Farmers’ Market, sometimes by customers asking me for things, but what inspires me most is looking at a couple of simple ingredients and deciding to put them together for something that can be surprisingly delicious.
Is the namesake of your restaurant, Chocolate, still at the forefront of your vision when you are thinking of your menu?
It is. When you consider, what restaurants serve three different types of mole? Chocolate is the base of our BBQ sauce, and it is one of the most popular ingredients in our cocktails. Our best selling entree is chicken mole, and we are working on bringing back a vegetarian version. Our newest dish is a trio, a cast iron, three-compartment pan with three different kinds of mole in it.
I would say that we do get a few tables every night that are just coming for desserts. They are not coming for the overwhelming sugar platter, they are coming for some great dessert that they can count on being delicious, or something that they’ve had somewhere else and they will have it better at Chocolate. Two examples are the tiramisu and the cannoli. Sometimes fresh inspiration comes from tasting things that should be better, and cannoli and tiramisu are two really good examples of that.
Our tiramisu is very traditional, with strong espresso, brandy, chocolate, and cream. Not a cup of cream to eat with a spoon. You eat it with a fork and it stands up all by itself.
I’d like to say that I was encouraged this past winter by how comfortable people seemed to be outside in our courtyard—even on the cold nights and the rainy nights. Now, even when we have a few tables available inside, I see customers choosing to sit outdoors. That’s what we like to offer them the most.