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Longtime local eatery thrives on nostalgia, quality

Since 1949, the Village Grille has been a staple in the Claremont Village.

Whether you’re a Grille regular, sidling up to the counter, or a visitor to town, seated outside to watch the world go by, the special of the day is the same friendly service and rib-sticking food.

With red vinyl booths, black-and-white linoleum and a soundtrack of golden oldies rock ‘n roll—“I’m the kind of guy who can never settle down…”—the restaurant offers a welcome slice of Americana.

Fostering the retro vibe isn’t a problem for Sandy Coglietti, who purchased the Village Grille with her husband Ron 20 years ago and has continued to helm the eatery since his death nine years ago.

“We lived the ‘50s and ‘60s,” she explained. “I’m going to be 70 this year, so that would be our era. We really are a ‘50s diner.”

Mr. Coglietti is gone but certainly not forgotten.

When large groups like a weekly Pilgrim Place delegation gather in the banquet room, they are treated to an idyllic vision, a mural created by local artist Danny Hinzo. It’s a tribute to the late restauranteur. A vintage Ford and Chevy, both in cherry condition, gleam in the parking lot of “Coglietti’s,” a diner that is a stone’s throw from Route 66. In the background, palm trees are silhouetted against the San Gabriel Mountains, courtesy of a blazing southern California sunset.

If it is a dream-like vision, acquiring the Village Grille was a real-life dream for Mr. Coglietti.

He was in the bakery business, but longed to own a restaurant. Ms. Coglietti, the 30-year proprietor of Sandy’s Drapery in Upland, suggested he ask around at the various restaurants on his delivery route to see if anyone was interested in selling. As it turned out, Joe Namore, who had owned the Village Grille for 22 years, was ready to move on.

The Cogliettis found themselves in the restaurant business. By focusing on sparkling cleanliness and top-notch customer service, they earned a loyal clientele.

“It’s the consistency,” Ms. Coglietti said. “Customers like when you know them and know what they like.”

Another priority is starting every dish with fine ingredients.

“We buy the best. The bacon is very good,” she said. “The company we used to use for our gyro went bankrupt, so we drive all the way to San Diego to get the most high-quality gyro meat.”

After Ron died, Sandy didn’t have much choice as to whether to keep running the Grille.

“It was my livelihood,” she said simply.

With some help from her son, Cliff, and from a loyal staff, she kept the doors open and the hotcakes and milkshakes coming. It hasn’t always been easy. Starting in 2008, the recession made itself felt with a vengeance.

“It was scary,” Ms. Coglietti said.

Since then, the local economic recovery has posed its own challenges. In the past several years, Claremont has gone from having relatively few restaurants to being a foodie’s paradise. The competition is tough.

“The restaurant boom has hurt us a lot,” Ms. Coglietti said. “We used to have a big slice of the local restaurant pie. Now, the piece is cut so narrow.”

The Village Grille must deal with another effect of the city’s remarkable growth.

“I have people who don’t come here any more because there’s not enough parking,” she shared.

The Village Grille’s car show, which for years drew droves of people as well as a nostalgic parade of classic cars to the Village, is another casualty of the parking crunch. The monthly event has been shelved.

But the challenges have not driven the Cogliettis out of the restaurant business. In fact, Ms. Coglietti and her son Cliff opened the doors of a new restaurant in 2011, The Heights Restaurant and Bar in Upland.

“We started it from scratch, the menu and everything,” Ms. Coglietti said. “My son and I decorated it really beautifully with the history of Upland on the wall.” 

The restaurant, which Cliff runs, is located in the popular The Colonies shopping center. It is edging healthily towards being in the black.

“It’s doing fantastic. The Heights is paying back the money we put into it,” Ms. Coglietti said.

And despite changing times, the Village Grille continues to draw customers looking for good affordable eats in an area that could now well be called “The City of Trees and PhDs… and restaurants.”

Bob Lennox, who lives in Upland but who regularly visits Claremont to shop or take in a movie at the local Laemmles, is a regular at the Grille.

“They’ve got good food and great service,” he said.

Claremont’s contingent of high school and junior high school students are also fans.

“They come in here after school and get shakes and chili cheese fries,” Ms. Coglietti said.

Want a quick history lesson?

Before Mr. Namore, the Bollinger family owned the Village Grille. No, Ms. Coglietti says, not the Bollingers who run the Candlelight Pavilion dinner theater. Originally, the restaurant was built as a Ford automobile dealership.

According to the Claremont Heritage website, “If you peek under the aluminum awning on the Yale Avenue window, you will see the arch that once defined the showroom.”

For 65 years, though, food has been the locale’s specialty, with only minor changes like the recent addition of eggs Benedict to the Village Grille menu. It’s not uncommon to see the children or grandchildren of a longtime Grille regular come into the restaurant.

Ms. Coglietti, who also has two daughters, Dawn and Cindy, and a 2-year-old granddaughter, loves that aspect of the business. Her life is centered around family and her restaurant reflects her values with a familial atmosphere.

“I love it here,” said Patricia Pennington, who has been a server at the  Village Grille for four years.  “The money doesn’t have much to do with it. It’s the customers, actually.”

—Sarah Torribio

storribio@claremont-courier.com

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