When I first left college and decided to “pursue a career in journalism,” I needed jobs. Lots of them. I freelanced, and eventually started working as a part-time news editor for this very paper. On the side, I folded clothes and graded papers and waited tables. While my UCSB friends trickled off to grad schools and bigger cities, I found myself working 70 hours a week and wondering where the hell my social life had gone. Then I took a hostessing gig at the Sojourner Café.
To this day, that job remains the biggest anomaly on my résumé. Sure, I had worked in other restaurants and knew the basics of front-of-house etiquette, but “the Soj,” as my coworkers so lovingly called it, was not your average mid-priced diner.
In many ways, taking that job was like entering a special little Santa Barbara club. There was a lingo, and a vibe, and a very particular kind of clientele that frequented the Soj. They were old-school Mountain Drive types and their new-school compatriots. They were first-wave vegans and third-wave hippies, fire-spinners, Burners, longtime S.B. locs, young families, and devoted solo diners.
For all intents and purposes, the Soj was about as far removed from Del Playa keg culture as Santa Barbara got. And yes, when I first walked in there, I was as intimidated as all the Yelpers who say that the Soj’s vibe was its downfall.
Despite all of this, I opened up to it, partly because I needed the money, but mostly because it opened up to me. In a matter of hours on that first training shift, I started to understand what the appeal of this bizarre-o throwback health food joint was. For starters, the place glowed with warmth (and soup) hours after almost every other kitchen downtown called it quits. The bar acted like most bars did — except instead of thumping bass and cheap beer, it served beet juice and lively conversation. The staff, at least during my tenure, not only knew their customers, they could anticipate their moves (and quirks) before they ever even sat down. It was kind of like Cheers, but with more salads.
Perhaps most importantly, though, the Soj opened me up to a group of friends that I needed so desperately at that point in my life, friends that I would have never found on my own. Rather than looking at me as some fresh-out-of-college out-of-towner with not an ounce of hippie street cred, that staff welcomed me into the other side of Santa Barbara. It was in their company I saw my first meteor shower at Lizard’s Mouth, attended my first secret — and yes, totally illegal — bonfire on Hendry’s Beach, watched my first Solstice Parade, and made my first trek to Muddy Waters.
These were the types of coworkers who would not only cover for you when you were sick, but also bring you some ungodly healing concoction after they were done. Under their watch, I was taught to float a roll and some butter to the homeless folks who came through our door, and help out artists and environmental activists looking to get their foot in.
I continued working at the Soj long after I took over as music editor of The Independent, and eventually found myself playing sometimes-manager well into the after-dinner shift. On any given night, I would wait on a politician, a doctor, a spiritual healer, a college student, or a yoga instructor, and play friend and/or therapist to any and all of them. I often told people that I enjoyed the mix of having a desk job during the day and a social, person-to-person gig at night, where I could witness first-hand what was going on in the community, rather than just writing about it. The reality was, I didn’t want to lose the connections that came with the territory. Of course, as time went on and my “journalism career” turned into a journalism career, I had to let it go. But to this day, I count many of those Soj employees and regulars as some of my lifelong friends.
I now live a few hours’ drive from Santa Barbara, and can’t truly speak to the Soj of the past few years, but I think it’s still safe to say its loss is palpable. Blame the economy or the menu or the new vibe of downtown S.B. for its demise, but don’t forget the Soj for what it was: an independently-owned, community-first, Santa Barbara-pride-filled little establishment.
They made a damn fine pumpkin-chocolate-chip cookie, too.
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“In Memoriam: Sojourner Café: 1978-2015” by D.J. Palladino