Hamilton's High St. Cafe to close, but buyer plans a new restaurant

Mar. 17—High St. Cafe will close at the beginning of June, and owners Phil and Alena Wong said they've already identified a buyer who will keep the building at 250 High St. as a restaurant.

Phil Wong said they're selling because his family needs to come first.

"It's a family-run business. My mother has a lot of health issues right now, and we have four kids," he said. "It's a very hard thing to do, a very hard decision to make."

The past few years with the COVID pandemic "has just been the hardest on anybody in terms of business or restaurants, long hours past restaurant employees and trying to keep it staffed."

High St. Cafe, a scratch-style kitchen, was the vision of Alena Wong, who suggested opening the restaurant after Phil's father unexpectedly passed. Phil Wong scoped out High Street before deciding to buy 250 High St. in 2014. Before opening, he took 11 months to remodel the space that was, for decades, a Hallmark store.

The Wongs have owned and operated High St. Cafe since it opened in June 2015 in downtown Hamilton. It has become a staple eatery for the city.

They operated as a dine-in and carry-out business, and it's here where Phil Wong's Chicken Berry Salad (now only available on Mondays for carryout) became a Hamilton favorite. In May 2022, the Wongs switched to a carryout-only business model, partly because of the difficulty of finding staff due to the COVID pandemic, but it allowed them to focus more on the catering side of the business.

"Everything's just pulling us in different directions," he said. "We just kept on talking about it, and we want to have more quality of life, for one. I know how this business works and how it operates. I'm not scared of it at all.

"We're trying to have more quality time and family time. You only live once. It's just not worth the headaches anymore, the stress."

The Wongs "very quietly" put the word out in the industry. A number of people responded, and someone from Cincinnati was interested and seemed to be the best fit. They won't say who the buyer is, but would say they'll be keeping 250 High St. as a restaurant ― it may not be the same concept, however ― and their last day for carryout is June 9. They'll end their High St. Cafe catering service later in the month.

During the last week of operations in June, Phil Wong said he'll serve the Chicken Berry Salad every day, and they'll sell their honey poppyseed vinaigrette.

"Hopefully, where I decide to go, and where I go, I can pass that onto somebody so there will still be that good chance that Chicken Berry Salad will still be offered in town still," he said.

Officially, they'll own the property until June 30, and the new owner will take over July 1, Phil Wong said.

What life will be after High Street Cafe has not yet been written, but Phil Wong said he plans to be a chef working for someone, hopefully in Hamilton, which is his wife's hometown, and Alena said she'll refocus on being a yoga instructor.

The couple will auction off most of the eclectic items inside the store near the end of June with Dave Lunsford Auctioneers.