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Jimmy’s Last Night

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.

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