In Good Taste: Little Lion Café in Ocean Beach grows up to be a roaring success

In Good Taste:

Opening the Little Lion Café in Ocean Beach was a childhood dream come true for the Coulon sisters — Chef Anne-Marie, Jacqueline and Dominique. From the day they were toddlers, the sisters said they would "play restaurant" in their grandparents' iconic eatery, the Belgian Lion — a 30-year culinary landmark in Ocean Beach. Even though they lived in the Kensington area, Jacqueline said: "We feel like we grew up on the corner of West Point Loma and Bacon Street, because we'd get picked up from school and go straight to the restaurant. We'd fall asleep in the banquette and get carried to the car to go home."

You could call the Little Lion the "cub" restaurant to the Belgian Lion. Open since 2014, with six tables and a patio, it sits at the last set of businesses before you get to the oceanfront cliffs on Sunset Cliffs Boulevard. The sisters call it their "dream location" and discovered it during their many trips to the cliffs, where Anne-Marie surfs regularly.

"We'd always walk past this place and say, 'Can you imagine if that was a spot where you could get a glass of wine and a cheese plate?' And then my sister and I went to Belgium where my dad was born, and we sat on the water and had mussels and beer. We thought, we want this in Ocean Beach so badly ... that small European café vibe."

Before the café opened, it was a smoothie shop with a beer and wine license. The former owner was looking to move on, so when Anne-Marie came in and approached her to sell the place, she was happy to do so — especially to other female business owners. And so the Little Lion was born.

The location is a bit off the beaten path, but the sisters insist they aren't daunted by that fact. Turns out, they're spot on.

"We knew everyone who surfed and walked the cliffs would come, so we'd get the local clientele," Jacqueline said. "But what's undervalued about this location is now, with social media, tens of thousands of people walk the cliffs every summer and we end up getting a lot of tourists." Furthermore, The Inn at Sunset Cliffs is just two buildings down (operating without a restaurant or room service), so the Little Lion also gets Inn customers who stop by for almost every meal.

The restaurant offers a daytime menu and a dinner menu. The daytime has everything from lemon curd to breakfast tacos and a variety of salads and sandwiches, from $9 to $16. For dinner, prices are still reasonable, capping at $24. The menu includes something for everyone — from the most health-conscious diner to the heartier eater. "Some people come in and order the fried chicken every single time, and then there are people who come in and get the kale salad or the super food bowl," Jacqueline said. "Probably one of the most popular things on the daytime menu are our breakfast tacos, and they happen to be vegan and they happen to be gluten-free, but everyone loves them. That's kind of fun when something works for all tastes and all types."

She adds that during the day, "it's nuts. It's crazy! It's hustle and bustle with people in and out. At night, it's really cozy, and sometimes the last three tables will just end up talking to each other and it feels like one dinner party. It's a really intimate atmosphere at night. I love it."

After four years, the sisters acknowledge that their beloved little café may have outgrown its space.

"When we first opened this place," Jacqueline explained, "we were like, this is it, this is enough. We always just wanted a little place. Now, we keep getting busier and fuller, which is great. But it's gotten to the point where we've outgrown it a little bit ... some of our best regulars just don't want to deal with the chaos because on weekends we are just busting at the seams."

So the sisters have a plan. In five years, they'd like to be the "parents" of more lion cubs, as long as they're located in Ocean Beach or Point Loma. "Our dream is to have Little Lion, and then open Sea Lion, and then Dandy Lion. There will be three sisters running the three restaurants. Then, we can just slowly start growing old and settling in," Jacqueline chuckled.

The Little Lion Café is at 1424 Sunset Cliffs Blvd. in Ocean Beach. It's open 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday; and 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Closed Monday. (619) 756-6921. thelittlelioncafe.com

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