Croce’s Restaurant & Jazz Bar: 1985 – 2016
Late one night in 1983, I made dinner for my friend, Joann. Brisket, ztimmes, and blintzes for dessert. At her encouragement to “open a restaurant,” I acquired a business license the very next day.
For 30 years, Croce’s Restaurant & Jazz Bar was written up as a “pioneer of San Diego’s Gaslamp District” and a “dining and live music destination” for the city. It was simply my whole world. Our downtown venue grew to include the Top Hat, Ingrid’s Cantina, Croce/Rock Art Gallery, and Upstairs at Croce’s, accommodating 800 people at a time!
On any given night, you would find local jazz musicians on stage alongside international stars and athletes. We were as dedicated to the art of performance as we were to “culinary excellence.”
For me, Croce’s was a sacred & soulful space for family, friends and community.
A Letter from Jimmy Rock
In the 1960’s, my generation did not want to work for the Establishment. It was a time that’s often been described as turbulent and there’s no better word for it. We struggled to carve out paths through the world, to make our way without “selling out” to The Man.
Growing up on a farm in very rural Iowa, Music as Religion spoke to me. Music held essential truths, united my generation with its ideals, and offered me the opportunity to find others of like mind.
I became a musician, practicing endless hours and filling my small town with the sounds of my drums. I helped form several bands playing Rock, R&B, Country, and (since my best friend was a Scruggs-style banjo player) Bluegrass & Folk music.
When I wasn’t playing music, I was reading, often while driving the tractor back and forth across the corn and soybean fields of my Dad’s farm. My love of learning fueled dreams of what lay beyond Iowa and led me, eventually, to law school in San Diego.
Practicing law was my way of helping my generation fight the good fight, and I opened a private practice in San Diego. Still, music never left my mind.
By the late 1970s, I was playing music all around town, mostly in kitchens and living rooms. One of my good friends, Christine Keller, would often say, “I’d like to introduce you to Ingrid Croce. I think you two would hit it off.” But I wasn’t interested.
It was ironic that Fate, via the Law, insisted we meet. That’s a story for another time, but the important thing is that I was a never-married, idealistic, independent raconteur who locked eyes with Ingrid and fell magically, immediately in love.
Wow! An Iowa farm boy and a girl from Philadelphia finding they have everything in common? That’ll make a believer in the Great-Something-Or-Other out of anyone!
Croce’s Restaurant & Jazz Bar became our labor of love, the lynchpin of our relationship. We did, and still do, everything together.
We interviewed, hired, and counseled each and every Croce’s employee who would become a part of our family. We listened and appreciated each musician’s swelling notes in the space. Ingrid oversaw every item on the menu and we both enjoyed the food the chefs produced. I think I enjoyed the bar a bit more, truth be told. But! We greeted each guest, together. I became her “unofficially official” photographer, taking pictures of Ingrid with the many fans who would stop by the restaurant to say hi and hear stories about Jim’s life.
Croce’s Restaurant & Jazz Bar was a place for music, Jim’s legacy, and above all, a space to preserve the fun, free-wheeling spirit of the 60s. It’s those fans I miss the most, these days. Fans came from every state. They came from all over Europe (especially Italy and Great Britain). They came from Japan, Australia, Canada, Mexico and many other countries. Some, I swear, came from the Moon! Always, they came to thank Ingrid and tell her how much her & Jim’s music meant to them.
I distinctly remember one late night, unwinding at home after Another Annual Restaurant Awards Dinner where we were nominated and lost. Feeling dejected, we silently asked ourselves: why do we continue to do this? Then, Ingrid pulled out a stack of letters we received from fans. The first letter was from a young woman whose father, a veteran, had just passed away. She told us how much Jim’s music meant to him and that, now, she too was a fan. Whenever she listened to Jim’s music, she remembered her Dad.
Every letter in that stack was of quality. We passed them back and forth, reading each one with tears streaming down our cheeks. When we were done, I looked up and said, “This is why we do this.”
We were heartbroken when we had to close Croce’s Restaurant & Jazz Bar, forced out of our lease after 30 years in the San Diego Gaslamp District. Though we quickly opened Croce’s Park West in Banker’s Hill, that neighborhood location proved difficult for live music, and we didn’t just want to be another restaurant. The art of performing was so important to us we decided to sell in 2016.
Though Ingrid still receives – and we rejoice in! – letters and emails from fans, we lamented the passing of those special spaces.
We still get stopped on our morning walks around Balboa Park by people who tell us how they miss Croce’s. We miss it too. A man came up to Ingrid the other day and said, “I really miss how you took care of anyone.”
The restaurants also took care of me. When I’m asked what Croce’s Restaurant meant to me, I’m tempted to say, “everything.”
Croce's Restaurant & Jazz Bar
“I travelled across the USA about five years ago, visited the old Croce’s, had a meal and bought a tshirt. I’m a 66-year-old nobody. Jim’s songs are very important to me – I am always playing his CDs.”
– My kindest regards to you, Chris Elkin
“The restaurant was indeed a special place – it was my time in a bottle.”
– Affectionately, Ron
“Hi Ingrid! We are huge fans of Jim Croce and we often frequented your restaurant, enjoying the various music venues and chatting with you and Jimmy. I remember the night of the Jim Croce B-Day bash at your restaurant. What a great night of music! You have a knack of hanging with great people.”
– All the best, Dave & Brenda Kritser
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