Reincarnating Santa Barbara’s Favorite Bar
Jimmy's Oriental Gardens Reopens as Pickle Room
The world’s done a lot of spinning in the seven years since Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens shut its doors after six decades of serving Chinese food and cocktails to Santa Barbara.
I, for one, moved out of the yellow house around the corner and traded my spot at the glossy red bar for marriage and kids. Beloved bartender Willy Gilbert poured for a time at the Wildcat and Jill’s Place but found his steadiest gig amid the bocce ball and dead animal heads of Arnoldi’s. Happy-hour regular Bob Lovejoy went from installing tile and marble to opening Three Pickles deli with his son Clay on the same block of Canon Perdido Street. And Jimmy’s longtime owner Tommy Chung — the one who decided to close his family’s business in 2006 and sell the building to the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, which runs the Presidio across the street — is no longer with us, having passed away suddenly in July at 70 years old, seven years to the day that he closed the bar.
But a couple of Saturdays ago, when the night the iconic bar was reopened by the Lovejoys as the Pickle Room, most of those changes were rinsed away — jazz was on the speakers, every stool and booth was packed by buzzing bodies young and old, and Willy was back behind the bar, serving Tommy’s mai tais and cold Tsingtao beers to familiar, smiling faces. “It’s interesting, to say the least,” explained Willy of being back. “I’m still looking at the same walls behind the bar, but the place is actually quite beautiful; it’s almost like working a new bar. It’s gonna take a while to get some of the kinks out, but it’s really nice to see a lot of the old faces and how excited people are to see it back open again.”
A Cocktail Grail
Few are as excited as proprietor Bob Lovejoy, who first stumbled into Jimmy’s in 1976 while working on nearby Mexican restaurant La Playa Azul. Stepping out of Jimmy’s 30 years later for some fresh air, Lovejoy noticed a “For Lease” sign on the building next door — today home to Handlebar Coffee — and decided that was where he and Clay, who’d just sold his wholesale meat company, would realize their long-standing dream of opening a deli. They christened it Three Pickles in spring of 2006, thrilled that their preferred watering hole was literally steps away. “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” said Bob.
Not even Willy had the heart to tell him that Jimmy’s was closing three months later, but soon Bob learned the bad news like the rest of us, and we all spent that summer soaking up our last drinks, our last nibbles of tea-smoked chicken, our last slurps of pork noodle soup. “I’ve been staring at that building cross-eyed ever since,” explained Bob, and he wasn’t the only one, with just about every bar owner in town inquiring about the space. The Lovejoys got the upper hand in 2010, when they moved Three Pickles into the restaurant side of Jimmy’s. “But once that was opened,” said Bob, “my eye kept turning over here.”
So ensued a paperwork quest of grail-like proportions, a nearly two-year-long battle of real-estate chess and liquor-license bingo to get the required permits and permissions. “We maneuvered our way in here nicely,” said Bob, and they spared no expense to carefully renovate the place, spending more than $225,000. It’s hard to imagine anyone better suited for the challenge, as the Lovejoys treated the property with the care of devotees but with the meticulous attention of professional designers. “I grew up in red booths,” said Bob, whose grandpa owned bars and cafés down south, and whose stepmom ran an antique shop when he was a kid. “I’ve always had a reverence for what was old,” he explained. “This is our interpretation and restoration of a 1940s bar.”
The updated design is based largely on a faded postcard from decades ago, which revealed mirrors on the back wall rather than the old wood panels, and a bar that extended the entire length of the pagoda above; today, it’s 11 feet longer than it was in 2006, and the Lovejoys had to search far and wide for a Honduran mahogany to match the original trim. They opted out of the original blue-green walls, instead going with gold, and used the traditional red and black colors throughout. The old coin-operated phone is still there (now a hotline for Absolute Cab), as is the retro cash register, but the Sonos sound system, flat-screen TVs, and ironwood footrest below the bar are new, as are some of the high-end liquors and mixers. “We wanted to do Jimmy’s but wanted to bump it up a notch,” said Bob. “Clay and I have never done a bar before. This is new territory for us, and we’re trying to do it right.”
Barbara Chung believes her older brother Tommy, who supported the Lovejoys’ efforts before his death, would be pleased. “He’s known all of them for a long time — they were the Canon Perdido classmates, that’s what I would call them,” said Barbara, whose family also appreciates that the Lovejoys are dedicating their walls to be a gallery of Santa Barbara’s Asian-American heritage, for the old Chinatown and Japantown that straddled that stretch of Canon Perdido Street. “He’d be very happy that things are going so well in that neighborhood,” said Barbara, “and that they are continuing the history of the area itself.”
Tommy’s blessing aside, the Lovejoys also had to renovate the name, because the Chung family’s sale ensured that the building would never be called Jimmy’s or be a Chinese restaurant. Yet even that aligns with another Santa Barbara tradition of places with two names, one colloquial, one official — as Hendry’s is to Arroyo Burro Beach, so shall Jimmy’s be to the Pickle Room. But it’s still the people who matter most. Said Bob, “Willy’s the key to the whole thing.”
The Pickle Room’s soft opening was September 21; I was there by 9:30 p.m., sipping a Ketel One greyhound I once drank so steadily. For drink two, my friends and I took Clay’s advice of a Jameson shot with a pickle juice back — smoother than it sounds and, we hoped, a hangover preventative. Then we ventured into Moscow mule territory, lured by the shiny copper mugs. The mule is one of the five new specials along with Willy’s Hornitos margarita (Bob’s drink), Singapore sling, old-fashioned, and, of course, Tommy’s famous mai tai, which we also sipped on from ceramic Fu Manchu mugs. (A pickle martini, which two ladies ordered next to us, may soon find its way to the specials menu.)
Enhanced alcoholic offerings aside — not to mention the two additional bartenders aside from Willy — I was happy to see that the vibe remains that of a serious drinking establishment, best illustrated when one woman, who’d reportedly been wine tasting all day, requested a wine list. “Wine list!?” the new bartender shot back. “We don’t have one. This is a bar.” All the old-timers within earshot grinned with pride.
But, as enthralling as the heady mix of nostalgia and cocktails was that night, there’s even more excitement on the horizon, as Clay and Chef Weston Richards, of Spare Parts Bistro, finalize the Pickle Room’s food offerings. Inspired by the notion of a Chinese deli, the menu looks likely to include hand-ground sliders and meatballs, Reuben sandwich and egg roll, Chinese chicken salad modeled on the old recipe, and nightly dinner specials like chicken and eggplant parmigiana. And all will be served until nearly closing time, which is 1 a.m. on weekends. Said Clay, “We want to be the latest food place downtown.”
I know at least a few dozen people who can’t wait. Oh, and if you’re wondering how we fared after all those drinks? No hangovers whatsoever. Must have been the pickle juice.
The Pickle Room (126 E. Canon Perdido St.; 805-965-1015) is open 4:30-11 p.m., Mon.-Wed.; and 4:30 p.m.-1 a.m., Thu.-Sat. Happy hour is Mon.-Fri., 4:30-6 p.m. For info, visit facebook.com/PickleRoom