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Alejandro Najar (left) and Roman Moretti
Since launching the Blue Door Café
(1970 State Rd., 330-926-9774) in 2011, Michael Bruno has given diners countless reasons to visit Cuyahoga Falls. In addition to Bruno’s world-class bakery and pastry items, Blue Door has earned a reputation as one of Northeast Ohio’s best breakfast, brunch and lunch spots.
But Bruno isn’t content to let his restaurant sit idle once the crowds depart in the early afternoon. Over the years the owner has hosted countless beer dinners, wine dinners, and special tasting events. He’s also hired chefs to shepherd in more consistent dinner service, including a recent Michelin award winner.
But his latest get might be his biggest. Literally minutes after posting an opening for a chef position on social media, he received a response from Alejandro Najar, a local chef who gained national repute thanks to his recent success on “Hell’s Kitchen.” In February, Najar officially became the new executive chef at Blue Door.
“On so many different levels he’s the perfect chef for Blue Door,” says Bruno. “His food is so different from what we already do at breakfast, brunch and lunch. And he’s not stuffy. We don’t want Michelin fine dining. We want casual.”
That notion of “different” as opposed to “similar” might sound at odds with a restaurant business plan, but Bruno wants to attract a very different set of diners after dark, giving Blue Door somewhat of a split personality.
“We always say that it feels like a pop-up every night,” Najar explains. “The kitchen shuts down at 1:30 every day and then we come in flip it.”
For comparison’s sake, Blue Door will see between 200 and 250 guests between the hours of 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. Najar’s dinner service, which he oversees with sous chef Roman Moretti, dials that number back to a cool 100. In place of hearty, homespun breakfast and brunch platters, diners are handed a menu with a dozen eclectic small plates.
“For dinner we wanted something a little different,” Najar explains. “We wanted it to feel a little more intimate, but still casual. We have hipper music playing. The servers are younger. We only do 100 total covers and the food comes out when it’s ready.”
Najar is a culinary school dropout who has been chasing a James Beard Award since he was 12 years old. After the rush, thrill and thrum of Los Angeles, the chef said that coming back to his job at a brewery in Louisville, Ohio, was a bit of a comedown.
“To go from a crazy, crazy, crazy Michelin-style kitchen with people yelling at you – I was in a weird, depressive state,” he admits.
Coincidentally, the chef worked at the Blue Door 10 years ago for just one month before starting another job. His return marks the latest chapter for both him and Bruno.
“He’s had so many people come through here in the last 14 years,” Najar says. “I think that’s because this is great starting point for young chefs. They get to learn lot. That’s what drove me to come here back in 2013, when I was a 19-year-old cook, and now.”
Najar and Moretti’s menu offers guests a chance to see and taste the types of dishes that diners in other cities take for granted. It’s the sort of confident, playful and edgy food that stimulates conversation, obsessive picture taking and joy.
Meals are paired with poised service, a polished wine program and an unhurried pace. Staggered reservations allow sommelier Kyle Hardy to spend time with each table, helping guests choose eclectic but approachable wines that pair with their food choices.
Bruno is using the occasion to make some much-needed improvements to the property. The dining room “screams breakfast and lunch,” he says, so he will be tweaking it to be more dinner-friendly. A proper bar will be erected, a wine cellar installed and new seating that gives diners a wider berth ushered in. A fresh bartender and cocktail program will debut shortly.
One month of dinners later and Najar is settling in nicely, he says.
“I have to pinch myself sometimes because this is a dream job,” he says. “Do I wish we were in a bigger city? Absolutely – it would be wild. But I’ve always wanted to change the food scene in Summit County. I’ve gotten so many job offers in big cities across the country, but I’d rather do it at home. And this is home; I grew up in Barberton.”
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