As the mind starts drifting to thoughts of San Diego – or even beaches along the East Coast – a new Ahwatukee restaurant is offering locals something that may rank close to ocean breezes – like blue crabs, soft shell crabs, nine to 15 kinds of seasonal fresh fish and shrimp and scallops.

Ahwatukee residents James and Yolanda Brown recently opened the Chesapeake Bay Bistro at 5033 Elliot Road in the former space of Fresko Mediterranean Kitchen, which closed during the pandemic.

The restaurant culminates a long-held dream of the Browns, who for about two-and-a-half years have been running a seafood catering business of the same name but had yearned to expand it to a brick-and-mortar operation as well.

It also marks a personal triumph for James, who recently beat prostate cancer.

That and the pandemic got him thinking, he said, “You know what? This has been a dream of mine, a vision I’ve had, and I think it’s time to bring it to fruition.”

“My wife and I were sitting up and she was like, ‘you’ve been talking about it, we’ve been talking about it, let’s just do it.’ So we decided to do it.”

Having lived much of their 38 years of married life in San Diego, the couple moved here a little more than four years ago for Penske Auto Group, for which he was a sales manager and is still a sales manager for Audi. They were already empty nesters, their three children now adults.

James has some restaurant industry in his DNA: both his mother and grandmother owned several restaurants in Virginia, including one that specialized in Southern cuisine and another in seafood.

That legacy and their former life in San Diego gave birth to James’ idea for Chesapeake Bay Bistro.

“I combined the East Coast where I grew up and the West Coast where I met my wife 38 years ago,” he said.

The concept of Chesapeake Bay Bistro gives patrons a lot of choices. First, they choose their entree, then pick from six different kinds of marinade and then pick from five different kinds of preparation – sandwich, salad, plate, taco or à la carte. 

They also have appetizers from the sea, including fried calamari, crab cakes, mussels, crab claws, and sides like garlic noodles and seafood stuffing, fries, corn on the cob, hush puppies and others.

Being able to pick from this array represents what he calls “the Southern California approach” to seafood restaurants while the east coast is represented by the availability of blue crab, James said.

“I give the consumer a little bit more interactive ownership of their meal,” he explained. “And you know you’re getting it cooked to order because we can’t pre-cook it and leave it in a basket.”

And, all his product is fresh, caught the previous day and flown here by early morning.

Through the catering business, he said, “I’ve built some relationships with different suppliers, some really great suppliers and I know some fishermen that fish off the coast of California to where I’m able to get fresh fish from them.”

His catering business also offers the same variety of choice not only in food but in occasions. 

They cater everything from private parties at home to larger office gatherings and offer a pop-up bistro – a portable grill with an iced display of raw fish and other seafood that guests can select from and watch it cooked.

“We bring a nice display case like you see in the supermarket,” he explained. “People walk up and they see the salmon or halibut, or order shrimp right there. They can say, ‘I want a shrimp taco.’ ‘I want blackened fish’ or ‘I want a shrimp sandwich.

“So, we bring the full experience of being in our restaurant.”

While James takes care of outside marketing, Yolanda handles front off the house and customer interaction. James does some of the cooking but his sister-in-law, Zandra Vaughn, is the fulltime chef, bringing to Ahwatukee the skills she learned training and working as a chef in San Diego.

James is proud of the fact that she has “worked in the finer restaurants and hotels in San Diego, La Jolla and Del Mar.”

Asked about the challenges they faced in starting a restaurant – particularly as the pandemic still hangs around a bit – James candidly replied:

“One of the main challenges that I had to overcome was myself, you know? I think I’m like most people. You have a passion or a dream of something. And then, you know, we put that fear, that self-doubt in front of ourselves – which limits us.

“I had to overcome my self doubt and fear of going out there and doing it. So, once I believed in myself and said, ‘You know what, you can do it; get out there. Don’t worry about a guaranteed paycheck or whatever.’ 

“It’s what most Americans go through – you’re going out on that limb. And the only way you’re going to get that berry is to go out on that limb. So I decided to take the chance.”

He credits Yolanda with giving him that extra jolt of self-confidence following his fight with prostate cancer, saying she encouraged him and reminded him that life is too short not to take a chance on turning one’s personal dream into reality.

Though their location is small, it still offers dine-in as well as takeout service. And because some of their fare is seasonal, James said the time to grab some blue crabs or soft-shell crabs is now.

For novices, he advises that most Arizonans are accustomed to Dungeness crab and they’ll find the blue crab “a little bit sweeter.”

To check out their menu: chesapeakebaybistro.com or call 480 590-3065.

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