The news descended slow but strong, like the dark rum slipping through the pineapple slice in one of Willy Gilbert’s renowned mai tais: Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens—the nearly 60-year-old bar and restaurant on East Canon Perdido Street whose pagoda façade is the last reminder of Santa Barbara’s once-bustling Chinatown—would be closing for good on Saturday, July 29. The reason? Owner and chef Tommy Chung, Jimmy’s son, wants to retire and sell the whole property—which includes the restaurant, bar, and home in the back—for a comfortable chunk of change, with which he’ll enjoy his golden years.
It’s the best of reasons, but nonetheless, the voluntary shutdown of a family-owned business with a tried-and-true past is a crushing blow. Especially for a town like Santa Barbara, where our past gets routinely homogenized into pseudo-Spanish lore and our future seems destined to succumb to the mega-corporations continually staking claims on State Street. Since Jimmy’s is just the latest in a string of closures or remodels in recent months, many a Santa Barbaran is wondering where they’ll go now for authentic camaraderie and a sense of genuine community.
As such, the town’s residents have been dropping tears in their beers for weeks now, and this weekend’s final days are sure to be the most frenzied. So raise a glass to toast Tommy, Julie, Willy, Esther, Pearl, Sal, and all the other longtime employees, and bid a heartfelt farewell to the place we’ve all come to call our second living room.
What follows is a brief history of the establishment, a number of photos new and old, an essay on where to go next, and a collection of memories, written by patrons who’ve occupied the barstools and red booths at Jimmy’s for periods both all too long and way too brief. For even more memories and uncut versions of these letters, see independent.com, where you can also add your own thoughts.
The History of a Family Legacy
by Neal Graffy
As the Santa Barbara community mourns the loss of Jimmy’s, a fixture on East Canon Perdido Street since 1947, the heritage of the restaurant and its founder are certainly worthy of review.
In 1862, members of the Chung family left southern China’s Guangdong province and settled in San Francisco. A son, Wah Hing Chung, eventually came to Santa Barbara and was hired as a chef at the Arlington Hotel. Sometime before the turn of the century, he left the Arlington and opened the Wah Hing Chung Laundry at 21 West Carrillo Street, which later moved to 113 West De la Guerra Street and closed down in the early 1940s, a little more than a decade after Chung’s death.
His son, James Yee Chung, was born in China on July 21, 1910, and came to Santa Barbara in 1922. He attended the usual schools and worked at his father’s laundry. Somewhere along the line, he found laundry was not his calling and opened a restaurant, the Friendly Café, at 718 State Street in late 1936. Upstairs at 718 1/2 was a Chinese restaurant, the Nanking Gardens, run by Fun Yee. In 1940, Chung closed the Friendly Café and opened the Oriental Gardens at 330 West Cabrillo. A few years later he moved two doors down to 320 West Cabrillo and, in 1947, moved the restaurant for the third and final time to 126 East Canon Perdido, where it’s remained ever since.
Prior to 1925, Santa Barbara’s Chinatown had been concentrated primarily on the first block of East Canon Perdido Street. Following the earthquake the area was “revitalized” and contractor Elmer Whitaker built the two-story buildings along the 800 block of Santa Barbara and at the corner of Santa Barbara and Canon Perdido for the dislocated Chinese businesses and residents. Whitaker convinced Jimmy to move to the “new” Chinatown and into a building conveniently across the street from Whitaker’s house. No take-out for him!
The existing building, an old bakery, was demolished to make way for the new building, designed by architect Roy W. Cheesman in an unusual yet delightful way. The building was finished with brick rather than the usual white stucco, setting it apart from its Hispanicized neighbors. Black and red wood trim flanks the black tile panels, each adorned with pale green Chinese motifs. The Oriental feeling is cleverly continued by the shapes of the wooden brackets under the eaves. Topping off this architectural gem is the obligatory Spanish tile roof, which somehow doesn’t seem out of place.
Behind the restaurant, a two-story house was built where Jimmy and his wife Nuey raised their five children: Bill, Tommy, Kong, John, and Barbara. Jimmy Chung died in 1970 and his son Tommy, who started working at the restaurant in 1967, took over. He’s kept it running and looking pretty much like it did when his father first opened it. A big difference between father and son, however, is that Tommy cooks and Jimmy didn’t. Instead, Jimmy was known as a great “front door man.”
That difference aside, both father and son have proven themselves as successful restaurateurs and made Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens a part of Santa Barbara history.
Grasshopper for Grandpa
by Matt Kettmann
When my grandma died in 2001, my grandpa naturally fell into a lonely state of melancholy, where smiles were sparse and genuine joy was hard to find. Yet in the late summer of 2003, when he visited me in Santa Barbara, he was beaming with delight for the first time in years, all thanks to a visit to Jimmy’s.
See, my grandpa is a piano player/World War II vet from the old school, the kind of grumpy guy who bemoans the death of classiness as he quietly remembers the proverbial good ol’ days. When he stepped into Jimmy’s, heard good jazz, and ordered a grasshopper from Willy—expertly poured, as always—it took him back to a time when things were better, a time when a man knew his barkeep, a time when a barstool and good conversation was as good as it got. Despite my own greyhound-fueled buzz, I distinctly remember his green, crème de menthe-stained teeth framed by a grin, one of the few honest shows of happiness I’d seen from him in the last few years.
Of course, his grin was just one of many I’ve seen over my six-plus years of frequenting Jimmy’s as a relative regular. I first met the bar and its tender, Willy, back in 1999, when, as a lowly, 22-year-old Indy proofreader just graduated from UCSB, I stopped by for a drink on the way to our paper’s annual Christmas bash. It was packed to the pagodas, and my bar skills were still being honed, so I was pretty sure the stone-faced, bespectacled man behind the red-topped bar didn’t like me and never would as I fumbled over my words in ordering a seven-and-seven.
As fortune-cookie luck would have it, a few months later I moved to a small, tilted, green-and-yellow house on Santa Barbara Street near the corner of Canon Perdido. Overnight, Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens became my living room. After breaking the ice with Willy during repeat visits, he became my friend, my occasional tennis foe, and my joke teller. But as an impressionable young man, I also learned a little about life from watching Willy. He taught me when to bite your tongue when confronted with stupidity (a nightly affair); when to show forgiveness in the face of blacked-out debauchery (remember the Chinese gong? I don’t); how to be accepting of all people (where will Al the Bag Man change his money or wash his face now?); and, especially in this last month of standing-room-only crowds, how to deal with seemingly insurmountable stress with a Zen-like calm. And, of course, Willy taught us all when to hold ’em, when to fold ’em, and, most importantly, when to walk away.
As time passed, I came to realize what a privilege it is to be part of a place like Jimmy’s. “He’s got his own bartender!” my dad would brag to my uncles. “When can we go to Jimmy’s?” my friends from around the globe would inquire within minutes of landing in town. In this time of suburban lifestyles, corporate takeovers, and transient existences, it’s rare to find a place—be it bar, restaurant, or coffee shop—so consistently pleasing and welcoming, where the faces are the same and where, truly, everyone knows your name. Popular TV shows are made of this ilk.
Somewhere along the line, I began using Jimmy’s as a barometer with which to gauge new acquaintances, assuming that if they couldn’t appreciate the authenticity of the bar, then they wouldn’t understand life’s most universal pleasures: good conversation, strong drink, familiar faces. If they dug it, I dug them. If they didn’t, I don’t know them anymore. About three years ago I took a date there; today we’re engaged.
Although my house is around the corner—“110 steps from threshold to threshold,” I liked to say, though the number’s been debated over the years—my Jimmy’s frequency waxed and waned over the years. There’d be weeks when I was in there on Tuesday for post-deadline greyhounds; Wednesday for a bloody Mary and an interview; Thursday for pork noodle soup, Tsingtao, and baseball; Friday for post-concert wind downs; and Saturday for late-night, locked-door, vodka-on-ice shenanigans. And then there’d be months when, for no particular reason, I popped in only once or twice. But whenever I returned, it was like coming home, and the assembled cast of jazz musicians, arms dealers, semi-famous artists, college professors, theater actors, geologists, geographers, newspaper writers, wine dealers, and PR matrons would treat me as if I’d been there the whole time.
News of Jimmy’s closing hit me and my friends like a warm shot of bad tequila to the stomach. Indeed, this little article is, in all honesty, the hardest that I’ve ever had to write. That’s because this isn’t about alcohol or food or entertainment, this is about family, a notion that’s unfortunately losing steam in the 21st century. I suppose it would be easier to take if it was the proverbial “man” kicking out the crew—at least then we’d have someone to rebel against. But it’s an inside job, an owner and chef ready to retire with no one to take the reins. No one can blame Tommy, and no one does, because lives are meant for living, as Jimmy’s has taught us.
I’ve only been in town for a little more than a decade, so I don’t know exactly what people are talking about when they reminisce about “the way Santa Barbara used to be.” But thanks to Jimmy’s, I’m pretty sure that I’ve got a damn good clue.
A Rich Life
by D.J. Palladino
I wanted my life to be rich with friends and family. And so far it has.
My death? I don’t believe in the hereafter, so I haven’t given much thought to the party arrangements, except for one stipulation: I want my spouse to surreptitiously spread a portion of my ashes—when Willy isn’t looking—behind the bar at Jimmy’s. “Because that’s where I’m happy,” I always said.
I say this not to prove my passion for the quintessential Santa Barbara bar, soon gone. What I am implying is my unquestioning assumption Jimmy’s would long outlive me and I, an atheist, could haunt it forever.
Tommy Chung’s restaurant is one of the big reasons my life has been rich. I don’t remember its original incarnation on Cabrillo, run by Tommy’s father Jimmy, nor was it a place my parents frequented. By the 1980s, though, Jimmy’s was like our second living room. I began visiting it with journalists, the thirsty craft. There is a fine picture of Nick Welsh and me circa 1980 toasting our photographer. I was writing about a great $10 date, and it began at Jimmy’s happy hour.
We knew Willy from Summerland, before he was the city’s finest innkeep. When my wife Diane and I began dating, Jimmy’s became the official first stop for making a night of it. It soon became a place to end the evening, too. It was a time when we knew a lot of actors, when Ensemble Theatre first moved into the Alhecama. Jimmy’s sparkled with rockers, writers, and performers. It was peopled with wild friends we found out later were often wilder in their secret lives. Retro clothing and post-modern manners, it was comfortable yet bafflingly unpredictable too. Occasionally, after the bar closed, the party moved up to Willy’s apartment in the complex behind the kitchen. The morning sound of big trucks rolling tugged us awake on a couch. We didn’t do it often, but it’s worth bragging about.
The crowd then was a mix of working people and bohemians, mostly of the thespianic persuasion. The bar itself changed through the evening as the happy hour crowd went home to eat, replaced with the pre-Lobero or Ensemble Theatre crowd coming in to gulp an eggroll-and-mai-tai meal. These made way for the working actors strutting and fretting after their shows. Jimmy’s hosted a lesbian contingency and a core of dedicated duffers too. Willy, the Shakespeare of bar joke-tellers, moved smoothly between each world. There always seemed an event in the offing.
My favorite memory has to be Super Bowl, though. Our ritual, then as now, included Chasen’s recipe chili and a wind-up toy race at halftime. When Willy heard about it, he invited us to bring chili to the bar, which opened for friends a little early, and then hold the wind-up toy extravaganza there too. It was raucous fun. By the second year, though, it became legend and Bob Valenzuela built real race tracks, and races divided into heats. I don’t think there were betting windows, but weird wagers no doubt took place.
My dinosaur windup always won. Esther, who had by then married Willy, routinely came in second with a cute metal windup. Her insane envy prompted Willy to enlist Ellen Pasternack to kidnap my prize toy. This occurred sometime during the long year between race number three and race number four. Two days before the big game the phone rang and a garbled male voice told me if I ever wanted to see Dino again, I would need to bring a Bob Uecker rookie baseball card and Gummi Bears—which he mispronounced “goomie”—to a certain empty newspaper rack on State Street in front of Thrifty’s. I replied that rack never worked and the voice shouted never mind, act or Dino dies. Of course I complied and Dino was returned to me unscathed—save for a shag rug Mohawk he had grown as sort of a Stockholm syndrome symptom. A picture in the bar memorializes the first big race. They can never take that away from me.
Jimmy’s meant cherry Cokes and ribs for my son, almond duck and Chicago chow mein for me, and a creamy concoction called a flying saucer for my wife, a drink Willy always bitches about but invariably makes so good she feels, uh, felt beloved in that bar.
I found friends like family there, often when the place was full of strangers. My very favorite part, though, was visiting Tommy in the kitchen. Most restaurant kitchens are small infernos with heat taking its toll on workers. In Tommy’s kitchen, it often seemed preternaturally calm, and he always greeted me with kindness and remembrance of my family. He deserves peaceful retirement more than most.
Tommy, Willy, Esther, and the bar full of irregular regulars now disperse, like shadows from a play and all old scenes in a city that’s changing. I can just keep the memories on a bittersweet shelf. I feel sorry for the future, though. I may not find a better place to haunt.
Life Without Oriental Gardens
by Ethan Stewart
There’s a good chance that by the time you read this, Jimmy’s will have closed its impressive red door for the final time. The lights off, the last drink long since swallowed down, and Willy’s sublime jazz collection playing for his and Esther’s ears only. All good things must come to an end, they say, and thus what was perhaps our finest community oasis has dried up, leaving too many of us with one big common question mark hanging over our collective happy hours and late-night wanderings. “What now? Where do we go next?”
Jimmy’s popularity is best explained by the overwhelming feeling of community you felt upon entering. From thespians and contractors to writers and city employees, the people gathered around Willy’s bar represented the fundamental fabric of downtown Santa Barbara. But, with the “L.A.-ification” of State Street nearly complete, those of us looking for a bouncer-free watering hole—complete with friends, familiar faces, and food—are left with few options in the AJE (After Jimmy’s Era). While the bocce ball courts of Arnoldi’s will no doubt see a rise in attendance, one can clearly question the “downtown-ness” of this welcoming and historic haunt. Similarily, the famously stiff drinks poured at Mel’s and Joe’s will most likely see a spike in attendance, though the idea of replacing a Jimmy’s habit with one of these already popular joints is a lot like swapping a day at the beach for a hike in the mountains. Further, a certain amount of Jimmy’s patronage will no doubt simply return to their respective neighborhoods and stake their claim by bellying up at places like Palmieri’s on the Westside, Legends on the Eastside, the Cliff Room on the Mesa, the harbor’s Endless Summer, uptown’s Tee Off or Harry’s, and West Beach’s Brewhouse or Neighborhood. But for the tried-and-true downtown devotees, it remains to be seen how the void will be filled.
There is a vein of conventional thought that suggests all good stories should begin as close to the end as possible. If we assume this to be true, then now is not the time for tears but rather an opportunity for our community’s story to turn the page to a new and exciting libation-soaked chapter. So pick a spot, grab your friends, and go. Tell your co-workers, send out a mass email, and scream it to strangers parked at red lights, because with every cocktail and casual conversation, we will be helping preserve our community.
It won’t be easy and it certainly won’t happen overnight, but the work to be done right now is essential. And who knows? Maybe as your memories stack up at your new bar—with each funny story and hardship shared—that familiar feeling of Jimmy’s sweet embrace will return.
Dear Jimmy’s ... Red Door Memories
Crimson hues, cool jazz blues, and barbecued pork noodle soup; Soothing sounds and friends abound, can’t get enough of them Ketel One greyhounds; After a night on the town, or when it was time to pound, God how I loved to double down; By trying my luck, with my last hard-earned buck, after feasting on the almond-pressed duck, Watching sports on the tube, while finger golfing in the bar’s groove, and sipping mai tais from bamboo shoots; Some patrons would teach, others would preach, all with a convincing slurred speech: From actress tarts to drunken old farts, all wanting food from Esther’s cart; Chinatown lore and Willy’s pour, I will miss walking through the red door; Chalkboard in the head, what’s left to be said, where will I go now to get the spins in my bed? Must we now make amends, with the growing trend, that all good things come to an end? Thank you for the memories.
I'm not a barfly, but I love the camaraderie I found at Jimmy's. Nancy Nufer introduced me to the bar in 1990 when she hired me to work at Center Stage Theater. I’m originally from Philly, and Jimmy’s felt like an East Coast bar, so I felt at home immediately. And I've always adored Chinese food, so I found my nirvana. And one Friday night in 1997 or ’98, I also found my barstool.
It was a rainy night around 10:30 p.m., and I had just finished working at the Lobero. It had been a long, hard day. When I walked into Jimmy's, Willy was sitting at the end of the bar. Immediately, he jumped off the stool and, with his hand sweeping toward the seat, said, “This is your own barstool, Mo.” “Stop kidding and sit down,” I replied.
“No, no, no—this is your barstool,” he insisted.
Well, it had a backrest on it, and, you see, I’d been teasting Tommy for a year or two about his barstools not having backs on them. I wanted a chair I could sit back in after a hard day, but it was just something silly to razz the Jimmy’s owner about. Little did I know that Tommy took it to heart. He found two barstools with backrests in a thrift shop, had them professionally refurbished to match the bar’s red color scheme, and presented them to me. I was speechless, which, if you know me, doesn't happen too often. No one had ever done anything like that for me before or since. (The backrest stools survived about a year before the backs were snapped off, which explains that lack of such stools in most bars.)
As Nuey (Jimmy's late-wife) would say, “It's late, you go home now.” Losing my home away from home, guess I'll have to wait and find out where Willy will be bartending and follow him.
—Maureen "Mo" McFadden
In the Heart of Texas?
One of the first times I went into Jimmy’s, I noticed a calendar on the wall from May 1967. Sitting there looking at my actual birth date, May 5, I began devising a plan to steal it. Ultimately, I couldn’t pull the trigger in fear of being 86’d from the place where all my friends hung out. Besides, Willy already seemed to not like me. He can give some people that impression (as we all know). My suspicion was confirmed by my total inability to get his attention to get a drink. Even though he appeared to look directly at me, he seemed unable to hear me (we’ve all seen it). Years later, he warmed up. Maybe it was because I knew the secret knock—or my stunning (and vocal) blackjack skills—but probably because he enjoyed playing cribbage with my wife, Marianna. Jimmy’s importance to us is tough to describe. It’s as much home to us as our own living room. It was the comfortable, inevitable destination at the end of any evening out in Santa Barbara.
We moved to Austin six months ago. Whenever I talk to one of our friends from S.B., the most common question we get is, “Have you found your Jimmy’s there yet?”
We have not.
One of the many special things about Jimmy’s—and Willy in particular—is that everyone is treated with the same respect and courtesy. There is no favoritism, there are no free drinks. After a bone-crushing, life-threatening car crash I endured a few years back, the road to recovery took me to Jimmy’s on my first night out of my apartment. My face was held together by wires and I was fairly unrecognizable. I went in and ordered a Coca-Cola. Willy looked at me and said, “Jesus, Spencer, you look like shit! That'll be $2.50.” He laughed and I laughed too, happy to be involved in a normal transaction, happy to be charged, and finally feeling like it was all going to be okay. (I still can’t believe he charged me though.)
I’m surprised that Jimmy’s impending closure has affected me so emotionally. By the time I found out, I hadn’t been in months. Before that, I’d only been a handful of times in the eight years since Dad died. Exploring my sadness, I saw the connection between Jimmy’s, my dad, my childhood, and my hometown.
You might not typically associate bars and childhood, but then you probably didn’t know my dad. I guess you could say I first went to Jimmy’s as an embryo when my parents were a young couple. In later years, I’d toddle in holding Mom’s hand as she picked up our order. When I came in with Dad, I’d sit at the bar with him and the other regulars, watching him drink what he called a “see through,” head bobbing in silent approval of Willy’s jazz collection.
Years passed until I was old enough to visit the bar as a patron, to this day feeling strange to have Willy pour me a drink. Sitting there the other night, I asked Willy what was in my Singapore Sling. “Gin,” he said. “Your dad would’ve been proud of you.”
Jimmy’s reminds me of this past, when Santa Barbara was just a little beach town and Coast Village Road wasn’t crowded by Mercedes Benzes with L.A. plates, but with kids on bikes heading home after a day at the beach. I wonder what dad would think now.
A bar is really only as good as the man behind the bar. All the Chinese décor in the world won’t make a place a legend, although it does help. Jimmy’s always attracted me with its womblike interior and Chandler-esque mystique, but what sealed my fate was Willy, the poker-faced barkeep who told excellent dirty jokes, played good jazz loud, and poured powerful drinks. As a drunkard, I went through a pyrotechnical phase involving flash paper, a habit that was not discouraged by Willy but would invariably get me 86’d from panicked State Street bars.
One summer day after happy hour, I impulse-shopped at the Magic Store, where I witnessed the awesome spectacle of flash powder on an upturned tin can. I returned to Jimmy’s at dusk. The place was full of regulars and diners. I poured a generous pile of powder in a glass ashtray at the bar, struck a match and endeavored to ignite the pile. The flash blinded me, the ashtray exploded, and white smoke billowed out the front door. Finally, Willy approached me and said, deadpan, “Maybe you oughta work on your mixture at home.” Then he poured me another drink.
Whose Living Room?
I’ve lived behind Jimmy's Oriental Gardens for the last 18 years and—like so many of us who will be at sea without the welcoming warmth of our beloved watering hole—trying to come up with just one Jimmy's anecdote after lo these many years seems akin to impossible. For me, like so many others, separating Jimmy's from my life is an incision I'm highly reluctant to make.
I remember many times in my youth when I would pull a whole shift with Willy. Just start out at happy hour, decide to have dinner, and with one or another pal drifting in and out, realize that it was fast approaching closing time. Might as well hang with Willy and Esther ’til closing and have a “tweeter.” (Willy's term for a mini-cocktail.)
Then there are the countless Chinese New Year dinners. Or the Thanksgiving dinners. Or the fact that if I stayed home from work with a cold I'd often hear a knock on the door around 6 p.m. and there’d be Tommy or his wife Julie dropping off chicken soup, ’cause they knew I was ill. What other apartment comes with those fringe benefits?
But my favorite fables are those of friends who’d drop into town and never call until they made it back home. “Well,” they’d explain, “we came into Jimmy's for dinner, and stayed ’til closing, but we never saw you. Where were you?” Most of the time I was home, reachable with just one phone call. But somehow that option didn't occur to very many, until it was the wee hours of the morning.
I suspect it wasn’t so much the apocryphal beliefs that Jimmy’s is, in fact, my living room so much as the pleasure most everyone feels sitting in their own living room away from home. And if “waiting for Nufer” was a decent excuse to let a few more pleasant hours pile up on top of one another, then I'm proud to have been of service.
A Million More
When we lose a great friend, we think back to the times we may have missed saying the things that really matter. When we lose a great institution, it’s like losing a family—it’s harder. The closing of Jimmy’s leaves another void for many who will never know what a true “family style” restaurant/watering hole is like. Sad to think that they will miss the good and honest food, served with Esther’s knowing refusals to let anyone order too much; Pearl, Sal, and Jan’s smiles; and, yes, Willy’s wicked combo of “real jazz” and never-ending mai tais. I asked him once, “Think you’ve made a million of those yet?” His deadpan reply: “Yep, and got a million more.”
When I moved to Santa Barbara in 1994, every night I would take a long walk to investigate the downtown area. One night, I saw beautiful store with red and green neon inviting me to Jimmy's Oriental Gardens. I entered and immediately felt at home—the classic old-style bar, the red upholstered booths, the mellow jazz. It was such a welcome relief from the raucous meat market bars on State Street.
After years of getting to know Willy, Esther, Pearl, and Sal—who all made me feel welcome—I was invited to share Thanksgiving dinners at Jimmy’s with Tommy and Julie. Instead of relaxing away from work like the rest of the world, they put on a big event to share with friends and customers. Since then, I've celebrated weddings, funerals, graduations, and births with my “family” there.
I was always impressed with the caliber of the patrons. There was never any aggression and so many of the people were so interesting—highly educated, artistic, world travelers. I've never been in a place where so many people were so conversant on so many topics. When someone new sat next to me I was almost always sure that we would have a great conversation.
I wish Tommy and Julie a well-deserved rest from the hot and hectic kitchen. And I know that if Willy gets another job as a bartender it will become a very popular spot. In the words of Tommy's mother, the late Mrs. Chong, “It’s late, you go home now.”
—Dr. Jim Marston