Less than a year ago, I reached out to Randal Johnson, the chef and owner of Molinari’s in Mentor. I was writing a feature about Cleveland restaurants that have managed to survive the test of time by adapting. When Johnson and I chatted, Molinari’s was approaching its 29th birthday. Sadly, that pioneering eatery will not see its 30th. Johnson was forced to close the restaurant last month.
Johnson has been wrestling with culinary trends ever since he opened the doors in 1991. Eager to escape the traditional restaurant experience, the Culinary Institute of America grad initially opened as a retail wine and specialty foods shop. A year into it, though, he added a few tables for dine-in service. Then he added a few more. A couple years later the space next door became available so he commandeered that and expanded the kitchen to better support his seasonal Italian cuisine.
Johnson was an early champion of the retail-wine experience, where diners could grab a bottle off the rack, pay retail, along with a small corkage fee, and enjoy the savings alongside a great meal. At one point he stocked nearly 700 labels.
Early on, Molinari’s earned a reputation as a fine-dining restaurant. But as tastes and budgets changed, Johnson was compelled to do the same. When I first met the chef in 2007 – just shy of his restaurant’s 15th anniversary – he was rolling out a new small-plates menu (titled Snax) to appeal to those diners who were eating less and spending less. Later, at no small expense, he installed a pizza oven to further offset his restaurant’s stubborn status as a destination eatery at a time when that description was the kiss of death.
We caught up again just before his restaurant’s 20th anniversary to dish about Yelp, bloggers and those trendy farm-to-table foods that he’s been pushing for more than 30 years. Then he mentioned the explosion of new restaurants, which made everything he did that much more challenging. With each new restaurant that opened over the past 10 to 15 years, his slice of the pie got smaller and smaller.
And then came 2020.
“This whole Covid thing started off good for us, when we were doing take-out, but as soon as the restaurants reopened that sort of dried up and the volume just wasn’t there,” Johnson explains. “But certainly the most difficult thing for us over the past year has been, from a labor standpoint, trying to find people who want to work. It’s just crazy. A week ago my whole kitchen staff didn’t show up and that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
It’s a testament to Johnson’s skill, persistence and personality that he made it this far. A diner had to work to find Molinari’s, which was wedged into the crook of a shopping center that was set back from the roadway and concealed from view. “We’re pretty well hidden,” Johnson liked to joke.
Johnson hopes to find a buyer for the business, but given the current dining atmosphere, that may prove challenging.