North County Times
The backward glance - Talented Pie maker left Unusual Legacy in Leucadia
Imagine it’s 1939. You are a 6-year-old boy named Jess, lying in bed in the apartment behind your parents’ cafe. As there’s only one bedroom your bed is in the living room, separated from the cafe by a swinging door. Light from the beacon on Leucadia’s bluffs shines through the window, flinging scary, witch-shaped shadows onto your walls.
“The light beamed in every 30 seconds,” Jess Wright remembers. “But I grew used to it. It didn’t keep me awake.”
The beacon, with its revolving dome, was one of the towers that guided aircraft flying along the coast, Jess explained.
“Leucadia’s tower was on Neptune, just north of the steps down to Beacon’s Beach. Which, of course, is how the beach got its name.”
It was early in 1939 that the Wright family —- Jess Sr., his wife Helen, and Jess —- drove into Leucadia in their ’37 Buick Roadmaster.
“The car was about the only thing my folks hadn’t sold when they left Santa Ana,” Jess said. “Dad had owned a pipeline company, but the bank he did business with failed and he lost all his capital.”
His parents were driving along 101 looking for a bowling alley to rent, so they could start a new business, Jess remembers. They didn’t find one, but they did see a “For Rent” sign tacked to the door of the Blue Goose Cafe.
“They’d never owned a cafe. But Dad was a terrific cook. He’d taught himself while working as a wildcatter in the oil fields of Oklahoma and Texas.”
Today you can still see the long, narrow building at 810 N. Coast Highway 101 that used to be the Blue Goose. It’s the Sub Palace now, and savory smells of Italian cooking waft onto the sidewalk over its patio wall.
When the Wrights lived there that patio, Jess said, was an above-ground fish pond.
“When it was built, in 1929, the back part was intended as a motel,” he said. “It’s wood, with no foundation, so I’m amazed it’s still standing.”
At first the cafe, with Jess Sr. cooking and Helen waitressing, had few customers. It was the scraggle-tail end of the Depression, an era in Encinitas when many children still went to school barefoot.
“I remember my parents looking sad, worried,” Jess said. “I’d overhear them saying that they’d had a ‘ 25 cent day,’ or even, sometimes, a 15 cent one.”
Gradually, though, Jess Sr.’s mouthwatering “meat and potatoes” style of cooking attracted more and more customers.
“He was especially good at making pies,” Jess said. “Rich, old-fashioned chocolate pies, apple and lemon meringue and, my favorite, coconut cream. The term ‘low fat’ was never in Dad’s vocabulary.”
For Jess, those were wonderful years. There was so much space in which to be a kid. From the steep hill at the south end of Neptune to the north end there were only four houses, and nobody minded if he and his friends built tree houses in the towering cypress trees. “We had the bluffs as almost our private playground,” he said.
When World War ll began, the beacon’s lights were turned off, the tower abandoned. Helen Wright hung knitted blankets at the windows as a blackout measure, and soon Jess Sr. was using wartime food rations to cook for his crowded cafe. People had money again and in 1943, the Wrights bought the Blue Goose for $6,000.
By the end of the war they had so much business they moved the cafe next door, into what had been first a gas station, then a feed store on the corner of Eolus Avenue (It’s now a thrift shop).
By then Jess, at 10, was the cafe’s regular dishwasher when he wasn’t in school.
“Both of my much older brothers had left home before my parents opened the cafe,” he said. “So I spent a lot of time alone in the kitchen with Dad. I used to watch him, very early in the morning, rolling pastry for his pies. At lunch and dinner time —- we didn’t open for breakfast —- I’d be washing dishes while he cooked. My mother would tell him what people had ordered, and, even when the place was a mad house, he never wrote it down. He kept everything in his memory.”
The Wrights sold The Blue Goose in 1959. More than 20 years later Jess, who was living in San Diego by then, dropped by to see the old place. It was, he said, an unforgettable experience.
“It was a beautiful summer day and my wife and I were taking my mother for a drive along 101,” he said. “Number 810, we discovered, had become the studio gallery of an artist.”
They found the longhaired artist, who looked to be in his late 20s —- “a very Leucadia sort of person,” Jess said —- sitting right where the Blue Goose’s glass pie counter used to be.
As the three of them wandered around, looking at the artist’s oil paintings, they noticed that there seemed to be an inordinate number whose subject was pies. Pies in dishes. Pies on checked tablecloths. Slices of pie.
“We commented on this, and the artist told us that ever since he’d moved into the building he’d had ‘a compulsion to paint pies,’ ” Jess said. “When I told him about my father he looked incredulous.”
He was feeling pretty incredulous himself, Jess remembers. “In fact,” he said, “I still do.”