Claremont cafe offers sweet tastes

In a hidden nook of the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont caterer Catherine Dickerson is blending together two of Claremont’s most recognized features, citrus and art. The resulting combination is the newly opened Lemon Tree Cafe, a tranquil retreat for the colleges and community alike.

Through the Lemon Tree Cafe, the local caterer of nearly 13 years has finally found a space to ground her. While her workweek takes her back and forth along the Foothill communities nearly 18 hours a day, she’s happy to call her little restaurant her resting place. She hopes others will feel the same.

“I love the environment here on campus—the students, the faculty. It’s a refreshing place to be,” Ms. Dickerson said. “I want to create a place of warmth where others feel they can come to relax as well.”

The Lemon Tree Cafe breathes life into the space once known as The Broken Loaf. As the School of Theology broadens its scope, Ms. Dickerson felt a change in the culinary offerings on campus was also needed. The Lemon Tree Cafe was dubbed not only because of its tie to the teeming citrus of Claremont’s past, but the fresh perspective of the Claremont School of Theology’s present.

“We are a very diverse, multi-cultural, multi-religious university at this point that perhaps wasn’t so much in the past,” she reflected. “Now we are embracing being able to offer courses in Islam, courses in Judaism and really creating a space for all religions. For me, that’s what the lemon tree represents.”

As the theological school’s food provider, Ms. Dickerson makes sure to not only provide her hungry patrons with healthy made-to-order meals, but with dishes that are sensitive to the dietary restrictions of the students’ religious values. That means following Halal for the Muslim students and Kosher practices for those of the Jewish faith. For her patrons who practice Jainism, a religion that prescribes a path of nonviolence toward all living things, she has to be careful not to use garlic or onions as these plants are considered still living since they are found under the ground.

With the multi-religious background that makes up the theological school, it can be a tall order to cater to everyone, but it’s an aim that allows Ms. Dickerson the chance to embrace her culinary creativity.

“It’s a challenge, but it’s exciting,” she said. “I enjoy coming up with different things to accommodate all of these religious restrictions.”

It’s a task she takes seriously, understanding the feelings food evokes.

“It’s not just about sustaining health or keeping the body fueled. Food is emotional as well,” she recognized. “We don’t want to leave anyone out or make them feel they are being disrespected.”

That emotional connection associated with food is part of what drew Ms. Dickerson to work as a food provider. Before catering at the School of theology and Claremont Colleges, she was a 5Cs student herself, enrolled as a PhD student in the Claremont Graduate University’s women’s studies and religion program. She was studying the ways in which forbidden foods relate to gender issues within religion when she felt a pull away from her studies and into food service. Heeding her instincts, she packed up her schoolbooks and headed to Paris, where she resumed her studies at Le Cordon Bleu, trading Dr. Dickerson for Chef Dickerson.

She returned to the United States to put her newfound knowledge into practice, teaching cooking classes at William Sonoma and Sur La Table. Thanks to the network she had built during her doctorate studies, she soon returned to Claremont, picking up catering gigs at The Colleges and event planning for the Claremont School of Theology’s Whitehead International Film Festival.

Familiar with the food service at the School of Theology because of her work with the school’s film festival, she leaped at the opportunity to take over the post when it became available last January. She enthusiastically set to work revamping the school’s cafe into a space all her own over the past 6 months. Flowing white drapes and a sunny interior provide a sharp contrast to the boxed building. Indoor and outdoor tables and loungers, located around the citrus trees of the cafe’s back patio, provide a comfortable space for patrons stopping by for a quiet place to work or for a laid-back lunch.

Among the decor is a special one-of-a-kind art piece, created by local artist Luis Ramirez, a fourth-generation woodworker. The giant, three-dimensional lemon tree, crafted out of African mahogany, took the artist 4 months to complete and features a large tree adorned with 60 wood-carved lemons. Guests are invited to view the finished product, and in this case are encouraged to touch the art.

In addition to her unique emblem and the design of her dining space, Ms. Dickerson takes pride in her menu, which features a variety of hot and cold dishes, and a daily special for $6.75 that includes a drink. Standout items include her handcrafted chipotle dressing, served with her Southwestern Salad, and the Bistro Salad, a bed of fresh kale sprinkled with cranberries, edamame and pumpkin seeds with complementary sesame dressing.

Like she caters to her students, Ms. Dickerson shows the same consideration for cafe clients, molding her menu to include a little bit of something for everyone. Grilled or not, loaded with veggies or laden with meats, the culinary artist looks forward to sharing her labor of love.

“Food is all about love and emotion and comfort,” she said. “I’m excited to be a part of that.”

The Lemon Tree Cafe is located at 1325 College Ave., tucked away on the campus of the Claremont School of Theology. From the frontage road, pass the school’s white staircase and turn right on the narrow road before the bank. The cafe will be on your right-hand side next to a parking lot and small playground.

Lemon Tree Cafe is open for lunch Monday through Friday, from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more information, contact Ms. Dickerson at (951) 505-8598 or

—Beth Hartnett


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