There aren’t many places like it in our changing little town anymore-familiar haunts, restaurants where they know you at the door. “I love that feeling,” said Jill Shalhoob, doyenne of Jill’s Place, also known as Shalhoob’s (either is right): “When people come here, we call them by their name. They get a hug at the door, because they know us and we know them. I give great hugs.”
In some ways, Jill’s Place is just an unassuming mid-range steak house, like Carl’s was on Upper State Street 25 years ago. You’re less likely to have diner’s remorse here, where $20 steaks get all the trimmings in a world where most beefy emporiums run closer to $30 for flesh alone. Here, garlic bread’s on the table and there’s a nice long bar with the game on. But Jill’s is something more than beef, booze, and ballgames.
On Friday nights, you’ll likely see activist progressives Dick and Mickey Flacks rub shoulders with Ensemble Theater publicist Jim Breen schmoozing up the bar; young people on first dates; couples who come in three nights a week. Besides, Jill’s Place is in one of those corners of town that seems simmered in an older Santa Barbara, next door to a drive-in key shop and down the street from the Historical Museum in the shadow of the old town my parents pub-crawled. And somehow it’s even better because Jill opened Jill’s Place all of six years ago. For an old haunt, it’s very young.
“Hard to imagine, but the anniversary is this month,” she said. “It sure caught on fast.”
The familiarity is earned nonetheless. “I’m third generation Santa Barbaran,” explained Jill, a warm, olive-skinned woman who seems relaxed yet capable of intense application. In the era before the freeway went through, Jill was working at Cantwell’s trying to avoid the family business-wholesale and retail meat-when her father asked if she wanted to start a deli in a building he owned. “And I go, ‘Okay'” she laughed. That was two decades ago, and she’s rarely had time off since. And if that wasn’t bad enough, six years ago she decided to add steakhouse dining to her busy breakfast and lunchroom.
The Shalhoob name goes back a mite longer. Jill’s great-grandfather came from Lebanon in 19-oh-something to be the priest at the Greek Orthodox Church. But it was grandfather Jimmy who many still remember. He ran a shoeshine business and was really an obsessive wheeler-dealer but then died suddenly at 85 “while yelling about something on the phone,” Jill said. “Probably a deal.” He was legendarily famous for riding his horse into Joe’s, and rode in every Fiesta Parade. “We thought it was Grandpa’s parade,” Jill joked.
Her father Jerry Shalhoob started the meat business in 1973 where Jill’s Place is today. A veteran of meat counters in forgotten places like Kelly’s Corner, the Jordano’s grocery chain, and M&F Packing, Jerry opened a business that caught on pretty fast too, going from a little store front on Santa Barbara Street to 23 butchers working full time. They soon moved to the big facility on Gray Avenue where they are today, leaving the littler Shalhoob’s to a man who sold tri-tip sandwiches for four years, then suddenly shut down.
Jill ran it as a deli until, one fateful day after a spell of antsiness, she called up her father and brother. After nervously blurting out her dreams to add a steakhouse, vaguely modeled on the Arnoldi’s many of us remember as kids here, her father and her brother looked at each other and smiled. They liked the whole idea of it. “After that, a lot of stuff fell into place,” said Jill, including the liquor license that she inherited from the former owner of the Old Town Restaurant and a friend of her papa.
Shalhoob’s is obviously well-poised to feature steaks (guess where she buys meat), though the burger and chicken are big sellers too. The fatty and flavorful Santa Barbara sirloin is my favorite, though Jill suggests that the aged New York cut enjoys an edge in the popularity contest. Meals usually begin with a pea soup included in the price, as are salad, crisp vegetables, and a choice of carbohydrate (such as a baked potato). Most every cut gets a salty rub and comes with deeply-flavored sauces, from peppercorn to bourbon.
Maybe it isn’t Lucky’s, but it’s more similar than you might imagine. Instead of movie stars, tourists, and moguls, it’s a room full of our city, your friends, all year round. “What I like is looking around and seeing all the diversity,” said Jill as we watched the Lakers sag through a game in her newly expanded dining room. “The menu doesn’t change, we don’t do specials except at holidays, and we’ve held steady since we first opened. I have to brag about it. We have 96 seats and they’re usually full.”
Jill’s Place is located at 632 Santa Barbara Street and is open every day but Sunday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. for breakfast and lunch, and from 5 p.m. on for dinner. See shalhoobs.com.