Gia Ilijasic and her husband James Patsch have a motto that faithfully guides their personal life: "Eat. Laugh. Wine." The outgoing Shaker Heights couple works to live, habitually dining at the city's finest restaurants, knocking back the best bottles of wine, and throwing the most elaborate parties.
Like others before them, the enthusiastic amateurs hope to parlay that passion into a full-time gig when they open Gigi's on Fairmount in early November. Billed as a "wine café," the posh, little perch is located in the small commercial strip in Cleveland Height that includes On the Rise bakery. It's a dream long in the making, but Ilijasic recalls the precise moment when that desire evolved into a bona fide plan of action.
"We hosted a holiday party and went all out," she says. "We rented tables, turned the garage into a dining room and turned the dining room into a lounge. We cooked and served all the food; there was live music. It was beautiful and incredible, and it was a really special night and we thought, this is what we love to do, why not do it all the time?"
The pair started asking questions and taking notes. It wasn't as though they were complete greenhorns; Ilijasic has worked every front-of-the-house position there is, up to and including managing large, multifaceted restaurants. She's a skilled home cook who comes from a long line of skilled home cooks. But it wasn't until a space materialized that this picture starting coming into focus.
"A couple Christmases ago I was at On the Rise and the line went out the door and down the block," recalls Patsch. "I overheard somebody say, 'Wouldn't it be great if there was a little wine café here?'"
Call it fate or fortune, but a little over a year later, Patsch saw a "For Lease" sign in the window of a former flower shop, just feet from where he was standing the previous Christmas. Before long, a deal was inked, the keys were proffered, and Patsch and his wife officially were commercial tenants.
"I can't think of a better place to have a restaurant like ours," says Patsch. "It's a neighborhood, people are walking by, and thank god for On the Rise, because we're really going to ride their coattails."
Following a complete overhaul, the petite 45-seat space features glitzy chandeliers, room-length mirrors, and a small lounge area. Soft lighting and hundreds of flickering candles will create what Ilijasic calls a "glamorous but casual" atmosphere. On warm evenings, diners will spill out onto the spacious front sidewalk.
While there's going to be a full liquor license, the focus at Gigi's will be firmly on wine, with a hand-picked list of pricey "blue chip" bottles mixed with some lesser known, value-driven wines. "We'll be showcasing a lot of wines that we directly import, so there will be a lot of opportunities to try some interesting wines that you normally wouldn't find at other venues," says Bill Barefoot, the Grand Cru wine rep who compiled the list. The monthly calendar will be flush with wine tastings and wine dinners.
A small kitchen will turn out wine-friendly snacks, starters and sandwiches. In addition to the ubiquitous charcuterie boards and cheese plates, the menu includes hearty salads like the Caesar with grilled romaine, speck and anchovies, or the kale and pancetta with creamy vinaigrette. Warm, pressed panini sandwiches will be filled with house brined-and-roasted turkey with brie and apples, or Ohio ham, gruyere and grainy mustard. A signature item here will be the bruschetta boards, a pick-and-choose affair with about a dozen different options.
But the proprietors envision Gigi's evolving into much more than an after-work wine bar, says Ilijasic. "It's more of an all-day café that focuses on wine," she explains. "We figured that we'd be here in the morning prepping anyway, so why not be open and serve some food?"
If early interest is any indicator, says Patsch, they're in for a frenzied start. "We had to put these posters up and keep the door closed because we are constantly being accosted by people who are excited for us to open," he says, referring to the blacked-out storefront windows. "I'm worried about running out of product, because where we're located, and the response we've been getting so far, is a prelude to how busy we're going to be."
Day or night, the owners say that Gigi's is all about making people happy. "We're all about good food, good wine, good music and good lighting," says Ilijasic. "But the most important thing is good service. We're perfectionists when it comes to service."
If good service is number one, entertaining the guests is a close second, she adds. "The true story is, we both wanted to be stars," admits Ilijasic. "This is our stage, every table is our audience, and this is our big Broadway opening night."