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Business Spotlight: Big Changes at Cafe Portofino

Joe Turner is a veteran chef of 20-plus years. Photos by Ken Ketchie
Joe Turner is a veteran chef of 20-plus years. Photos by Ken Ketchie

By Jesse Wood

Feb. 4, 2014. Many changes – including the recent hiring of veteran chef Joe Turner – are occurring at Café Portofino, but co-owner Olga Esterson promised that its signature dish, the spiced sirloin, is to remain on the soon-to-be revamped menu.

“The spiced sirloin is not going away,” Esterson assured. “That’s what everybody is crazy about.”

In 2008, Esterson and Joanna Sahm purchased Café Portofino, which initially opened in 2000, after hiring Blue Ridge Business Brokerage to search for available businesses for sale in the Southeast. At the time, the Florida natives were both working in insurance and were ready to try something new, according to a business profile published one month after the two purchased the company.

After visiting the High Country, Esterson and Sahm fell in love with the idea of owning and operating Café Portofino, which is located in downtown Boone in a 100-year-old building on Rivers Street that once was the original maintenance station for Tweetsie Railroad.

Today, Esterson and Sahm continue what Esterson dubbed a “unique” operation with the college-style bar separate from the family restaurant.

Waitstaff and co-owners Olga Esterson and Joanna Sahm flank new executive chef Joe Turner.
Delie Wilkens (left), Manager Katelyn Rayle, and co-owners Olga Esterson and Joanna Sahm flank new executive chef Joe Turner.

One-half of Café Portofino features the bar, pool tables, jukebox, foosball tables, big screen TVs and darts, while the other half of the business is a full-fledged kitchen and family restaurant.

“We are able to please all different types of people,” Esterson said. “We are not just a college bar, but we are considered a family restaurant, too.”

And don’t forget about the two outside patios that are pet friendly. New chef Joe Turner said he cannot wait to put a grill on the patio in the summer and serve up some cookout-style cuisine.   

That will likely happen because Esterson has given Turner free range in the kitchen to be as creative as he wishes to be. 

“He’s got carte blanche,” Esterson said.

A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., Turner has 20 years cooking experience. His career began in Asheville, where for five years he worked at Savoy and Salsas. He made the move to the High Country 15 years ago, working in country clubs such as Elk River and the Eseeola Lodge. Now he’s the executive chef at Café Portofino.

He described his cooking style “Mardi Gras meets County Fair.” When asked to describe his cooking philosophy, he said, “Keep it simple with fresh, local ingredients.”

Esterson said the impetus for bringing in Turner was his creativity.

 “It was time for us to be more creative with our specials, time to invest in someone creative like Joe. We are doing things that we have never done before,” Esterson said. “We’ve always been a great place to have a great meal, but he’s bringing so much more to the table with his creativity, his approach to food. It’s going to take us to the next level.”

A Nightclub Three Nights a Week

Along with the new executive chef and pending changes to the menu, Café Portofino will turn into a nightclub on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings. While a live DJ performs on Friday nights currently, staff – beginning in March – will clear out the restaurant area and Café Portofino will take over the local nightlife scene for three nights a week. New lighting and a DJ booth will be set up and the restaurant room will be cleared for dancing and mingling. The fun will start at 11 p.m.

“We’re taking our night life to the next level, too,” Esterson said with a big smile.

Café Portofino is located in downtown Boone and neighbors the campus of Appalachian State University at 970 Rivers Street.

The restaurant is open Sunday and Tuesdays through Thursdays from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. and on Fridays and Saturdays from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. The bar is open from 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.

For more information, click to Café Portofino’s website or call 828-264-7772. 

While the bar on one-side of Cafe Portofino is geared towards those in college, the restaurant has a family-type atmosphere.


Many changes are coming to Cafe Portofino in 2014. For example, after 11 p.m. the restaurant area will be cleared out for nightlife.


Turner at work in the kitchen.


The bar side of Cafe Portofino features pool tables, darts, foosball, a jukebox and more.


This is on the bar side as well.


Two customers sit at the bar on a Friday afternoon.


Christian Hemion tends bar at Cafe Portofino.


Delie Wilkens (left), Manager Katelyn Rayle, and co-owners Olga Esterson and Joanna Sahm flank new executive chef Joe Turner.