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When it opened at 25th and J streets on a December morning almost 28 years ago, Celestin’s Island Eats & Cajun Cuisine was an instant success in the area, long before it was widely known as Midtown.
The restaurant, now located at 1815 K St., will close for the final time Sept. 30 as the Celestin family looks to relax and take a vacation.
“It’s the right time,” co-owner Phoebe Celestin said. She and her husband are looking to get out of the business, and they will now rent the space to a Southern-themed restaurant called The Porch.
She added that the closure is not financial. They handed it off to their son and his wife in 2006, but took it back in June, as the younger couple wanted to spend evenings together with their child. From that point on, they were looking to lease the space.
Selling Celestin’s wasn’t really an option, she said, since it had always been a family business and wouldn’t be the same otherwise.
Celestin said she and her husband are happy to see that Midtown has grown and prospered, getting to the point they dreamed of it becoming almost three decades ago.
“It’s bittersweet to leave it now, since the area is what we wanted it to be all that time,” Celestin said. “We were popular from day one, and we’ve been really fortunate. We had a strong beginning, middle and end. Every story should have that.”
Celestin added that several things were memorable over the years. She said customers always commented on how the windows on the original J Street location constantly steamed over, and she also remembers high-profile politicians stopping in for lunch.
But there’s one aspect of running the business that she said she will especially miss.
“My favorite was always being in a rush and working really hard and then pulling it off,” she said. “That was always a great feeling of satisfaction.”
With news of the restaurant’s impending closure coming out on Wednesday, Thursday’s lunch was very busy, and when the rush was past, co-owner Patrick Celestin, Phoebe Celestin’s husband, was wiping down patio tables.
“It’s what I do,” he said. “It’s important to have a good work ethic. I really like serving the folks and cooking the food. I’m going to miss the people and the hustle and bustle.”
Born in Port au Prince, Haiti, Patrick Celestin was in Sacramento visiting a friend from the Peace Corps when he met Phoebe, who had moved to the city from Seattle, and the two were later married.
Opening a restaurant seemed the natural thing to do for Patrick Celestin, who came from a family of chefs, caterers and restaurateurs.
“It’s in my blood,” he said Thursday. “What pleased me the most about owning this restaurant is that we maintained the quality of our food the whole time.”
The move from J Street to K Street came in 2001, after a fire burned a beauty salon on the space, and the Celestins were able to have a building constructed to their specifications.
At that time, they upgraded from a beer and wine license to a full liquor license and added mojitos and sangria to the menu, which have been some of the restaurant’s best-selling items since.
When it comes to food, the gumbo soup has remained a staple, as well as Haitian dishes.
“I have my favorite dishes,” Phoebe Celestin said. “I never tired of the gumbo, and I always loved the poulet blanchi, which is chicken in cream sauce with peas and onions.”
She added that another popular item is Haiti’s national dish, grio, which is twice-cooked pork with a sauce called Ti-Malice made of shallots, lime juice, chilies and thyme.
On Sept. 30, an auction of Haitian voodoo flags that grace the establishment’s walls will be held, with 15 percent of the proceeds donated to a charity the restaurant has partnered with for years, the Haitian Education and Leadership Program.
Customers packed the restaurant Thursday, and one of them was Nebrisa Novello, who came to celebrate her 28th birthday.
“I’ve come here on and off for the past 10 years,” she said. “It’s one of those Sacramento institutions. I like to keep going to them and help keep them around.”
She said she is happy that Celestin’s isn’t the victim of the economy and that The Porch will open in November to keep it from becoming an empty space.
Phoebe Celestin said the owners of The Porch, who also own nearby Capitol Garage, agreed to interview the entire staff of Celestin’s.
“That was very important to us,” she said.
Terry Sidie, who owns the Faces nightclub at 20th and K streets, ate at Celestin’s Thursday and said he is sad to see it go.
“They’re absolutely great,” he said. “There’s nothing else like it in town. There’s nothing I can say about Patrick and Phoebe that isn’t good.”
With the restaurant’s final three weeks approaching, the Celestins are making plans for what to do in the future.
Phoebe Celestin said she wants to return to Paris on a European vacation that might also include Spain and Switzerland to visit friends and family.
Patrick Celestin said he wants to relax, work around the house and clean out the garage.
Down the line, the couple might start a small product line of some of the restaurant’s favorites, including the gumbo soup and Ti-Malice Haitian hot sauce. They would then look to sell it at local markets.
But that’s in the more distant future. On Thursday, Patrick Celestin said he was focusing on the last weeks, where he hopes to see a lot of familiar faces so he can thank them for coming in over the years.
“Thank you. Thank you, Sacramento,” he said. “I am so grateful for the 28 years of support. I can’t emphasize my gratitude enough.”
Brandon Darnell is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press. Follow him on Twitter @Brandon_Darnell.