Rebuilt after a devastating fire, the bar at Cafe Roma, below, and owner John Hiebert, above.
Eight months after watching the smoke from a fire at his restaurant billow over Cruz Bay while he made his way to St. John from his home on St. Thomas on the ferry – with passengers crying at the sight of the fire threatening the center of the small downtown business district – Cafe Roma owner and chef John Hiebert is just happy to have his restaurant re-opened.
So are St. John diners.
“It’s been great,” Hiebert said of his first week back in business eight months after smoke began billowing out of the second story windows of the Cafe Roma restaurant in downtown Cruz Bay on Sunday afternoon, April 21.
“I just want to thank everyone for being so and supportive – and patient,” said Hiebert of Cafe Roma’s longtime island customers and the repeat visitors who made their way to his small trattoria and pizzeria or called in pizza orders when he reopened January 3.
Diners filled the tables of the dining room surrounded by the restaurant’s restored murals as “to go” boxes of pizzas flew out the door of the second-story restaurant and Hiebert worked the kitchen with his staff.
After more than 30 years in the restaurant business in Florida and Vermont, Hiebert acknowledged he was humbled by the community support of his struggle to reopen after the fire gutted the doyen of the island’s Italian restaurants and pizzerias.
“It’s been a life-changing experience,” said Hiebert, who acknowledged the financial strain which forced him and his wife Michelle to withdraw the oldest of their two children from college temporarily.
After eight months of recovery and rebuilding, Hiebert was ready to reopen Cafe Roma — even with last-minute finishing construction work still in progress.
The finish work was not quite “finished” on the wall of cabinetry under construction to hold the new wine inventory when the popular downtown Cruz Bay pizza parlor and Italian restaurant reopened.
But, Hiebert had to get his wine inventory out of boxes and off the dining room floor for his somewhat-delayed reopening, so the towering mahogany wine cabinet being crafted by island contractor and furniture maker Maurice Smith – which was steadily being emptied to serve diners on opening night – was put into premature use.
The new mahogany bar and back bar, also handcrafted by Smith, were stocked with liquor, but, midway through Cafe Roma’s first full week of operation, contractor and artisan Smith was proudly showing off his craftsmanship and trying to figure out how to pull the somewhat-bowed wine rack back to square – while it was still half-full of wine.
Hiebert, meanwhile, was too busy in the kitchen to worry about the final details of the reconstruction and his customers were too busy enjoying his fare.