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Fine Food: The Cat’s Meow : Veterinarian Owns Gourmet Restaurant as His Second Passion

Times Staff Writer

By day, he operates on cats, dogs and wounded birds. By night, he’s a writer, having produced such classics as “All Creatures Great and Small.” British veterinarian James Herriott has reaped a harvest from what some would call an exotic double life.

By day, Ronald Ridgway is the owner of North Park Veterinary Hospital on Park Boulevard, which specializes in the treatment of birds and reptiles but has barking dogs and purring cats as well. His twin passions are veterinary medicine and gourmet cuisine.

By night, he’s the owner of Silas St. John, one of San Diego’s most elegant restaurants, and, some say, its best.

Statute Opened the Door

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Several years ago, Ridgway took advantage of a rare San Diego ordinance that permits a residence being converted to commercial use--such as that of a restaurant--if deemed a historic site. Silas St. John is a craftsman-style house on Kensington Drive in Kensington built 79 years ago.

St. John, one of the first stagecoach drivers on the Southwest route of the Overland-Butterfield-Wells Fargo lines, bought the house in 1914. The house received its historical designation in 1982, and, by the time Ridgway opened the restaurant in 1985, he says, he had spent $200,000 to buy the house and another $800,000 to fix it up.

Last year, Silas St. John, which specializes in what Ridgway calls “regional American gourmet cooking” and fine, vintage wines (mostly from California), won the annual California Restaurant Writers’ award. Its reputation has been enhanced, it would seem, by the demise of two other gourmet restaurants that critics used to fawn over--Gustaf Anders in La Jolla and Sheppard’s on Harbor Island. (The Sheppard’s name still appoints the restaurant at the Sheraton Harbor Island, but the cuisine and chef are gone, replaced by less ambitious fare.)

Their demise has brought Ridgway and Silas St. John more business and more recognition. But the two other restaurants’ undoing is also what saddens him about the business, especially in San Diego, which in his words isn’t a great restaurant town. Their demise is also what scares him about the risk he has taken.

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Gourmet Taste Lacking

“Take a look at the number of Mexican restaurants in San Diego,” Ridgway said with a frown, as a starch-white cockatoo perched atop his shoulder. “I’m not putting Mexican food down, but this is a bean town. People here go to El Indio (which serves Mexican food to go and for sitting down). It tends to be a fast-food town, a steak town. The watering holes do great. You know, the Rusty Pelicans, that sort of thing.

“Many of the good ones just haven’t made it. A great restaurant called 926--it was where Gustaf Anders later was in La Jolla--also went under. Then, Gustaf Anders couldn’t make it. Sheppard’s was a great restaurant, and, even working under the rubric of the Sheraton hotel chain, it couldn’t make it. This just isn’t an elite restaurant town, and so a guy like me, who’s made this huge investment, well, yeah, it scares me. San Diego is a town that has yet to mature in many ways, gourmet dining being one of them.”

A lot of folks would agree with Ridgway, who, at 49, is stocky, built like a linebacker, boyishly youthful and persuasive. But what might surprise them is where he’s making these comments--in the operating room of a veterinary clinic, surrounded by a pair of Persian cats that look utterly terrified by the cockatoo.

Practice Has Evolved

Ridgway opened the clinic in 1976. His practice has changed as the neighborhood around it has changed. No longer is it dominated by elderly widows and widowers who bring in pets that represent the last link to the memory of a fallen spouse. Now, it’s young, rich, upwardly mobile types whose “thirtysomething” life styles include pets, usually exotic ones. They can afford the $300,000 houses that were once bought for a song.

Ridgway said clients are often astonished when they learn he has an elaborate, expensive wine cellar, not just in the basement of Silas St. John but also in the basement of the clinic. His double life has allowed him to be a wine connoisseur who stores wine in the basement of the clinic that later ends up on the tables of three competitors--fellow restaurant owners.

Another bit of Ridgway trivia: The basement of the clinic was built as a bomb shelter by the previous owner, who, as a member of the John Birch Society, just knew the Red Scare would mean nuclear holocaust at any moment.

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Ridgway said both businesses are stressful--both require long hours and present their share of vexing emotion--but, after soothing the grieving feelings of pet owners whose animals have had to succumb to euthanasia, he enjoys sipping Bordeaux wines in the basement of Silas St. John in the evenings while chatting with the customers. Sometimes, there’s an overlap. He now offers a discount at the restaurant for clients of the clinic--at their request.

Son’s Cooking Praised

Ridgway’s son, Derek Ridgway, is the chef of Silas St. John, a self-taught “restaurant hopper” who has gotten high marks from critics for the touch he has with “game birds.” Don’t customers sometimes needle him on the incongruity of his father making little birds well while the son serves them up at night?

“All the time,” Derek said with a laugh. “It’s the standing joke. I just tell them I get all of Dad’s mistakes.”

Ridgway said Derek learned to cook “out of desperation"--he’s one of three children from a previous marriage, and living with a single father meant it was “cook or die.” He also read a lot, and not just the directions for Tuna Helper.

Like his dad, Derek is quite aware of the challenges and stresses. New tax legislation has made it rougher on small businesses, the son says, especially on a restaurant that both say has yet to show a profit.

“We’re still putting more money into it every year than we’re getting out of it,” Ronald Ridgway said.

He’s also frustrated by the eccentricities of the San Diego restaurant-goer. He can’t quite understand why it isn’t the type of town where people like to dine out anytime after 9 p.m. He doesn’t like the rap that Silas St. John is, to some, expensive, when he feels that gourmet outlets, such as Masa in San Francisco, which serves a similar cuisine, cost twice as much and often require reservations a year in advance. He is also upset at having to turn away 175 reservations for special occasions, such as Feb. 14, because Silas St. John seats only 58.

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He said a five-course meal, which starts in the basement with wine, is likely to cost a minimum of $45 per person--for food--with the average cost of a bottle of wine about $24.

Ridgway was born in Seattle. He came to San Diego in 1958, later attended San Diego State University and then graduated from UC Davis with a doctorate in veterinary medicine.

Tied to Animals

He said he loves the veterinary business and intends to stay in it until he’s 65. He still struggles most with the everyday chore of having to comfort someone whose animal is too sick to live. In telling one such story, Ridgway’s voice choked up and tears welled up in his eyes.

“The hardest thing I’ve had to do, and I’ve had to do it four or five times, is put down a blind person’s Seeing Eye dog because it had cancer,” he said. “Those people are so devoted and so dependent on those animals. I empathize with them so deeply. It’s also tough when little kids are involved. They just don’t understand why an animal can’t make it.

“But, as hard as both businesses are, I’ll continue to do them for one simple reason: I love them. That’s the only reason worth doing anything.”


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