by Matt Kettmann
“Laaast caaalll!” was announced with boisterous reverence by bartender Willy Gilbert last Saturday night inside a jam-packed Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens. It was the final farewell to the Chinese restaurant cum stiff drink-serving bar that’s closing its doors after six decades of business. When owner and chef Tommy Chung announced one month ago that he planned to retire and sell the property, Jimmy’s business boomed like never before, peaking last weekend with lines snaking out the door and down East Canon Perdido Street. Drinkers and eaters lament the loss, but so do Santa Barbara’s legions of historians, since Jimmy’s — which first opened on the waterfront in 1940 before moving downtown in 1947 — was the last reminder of what was once Santa Barbara’s bustling Chinatown.
The last night proved a fitting tribute — albeit one with tight security — as smiles abounded, heartfelt cheers were hollered, and the owner, employees, and customers traded countless thanks and goodbyes. There was even a soundtrack other than the jazz Gilbert is famous for playing. Spencer Barnitz — an icon of Santa Barbara’s rock scene — and his crew played “Hey Jimmy’s Qué Paso,” their version of the classic breakup song “Hey Baby Qué Paso.” And jazz trumpeter Nate Birkey — who flew in from New York City just for the occasion — busted out a variant of “Taps,” a poignant cue for drinkers leaning on the pagoda-topped bar to take their final swallows.
The property’s future remains unknown, though Jarrell Jackman, executive director of the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, confirmed he placed a bid to buy the space. Jackman said the Trust — which owns much of the property around Jimmy’s — would convert the bar and restaurant into a Chinatown museum. Even if they win what’s expected to become a bidding war, Jackman said it’s highly unlikely the California Department of Parks and Recreation — under which the Trust operates — would allow the new museum to dispense Jimmy’s historic mai tais.