Silence and a slightly befuddled look ensued when I ask Roy Gandy about vacations — like, does the enduring chef-owner of Restaurant Roy on Carrillo Street ever take any? “Mmm, well,” muttered Gandy, shifting a bit on his barstool as if the thought of them make him nervous. “Not really.” As his wife, Lisa, confirms their scarcity with a shaking head from behind her bar-top laptop, he continues with a proud smirk, “But I like what I do.”
What he does — and has done for 25-plus years — is run one of Santa Barbara’s most consistent culinary scenes, a prix fixe place that offers gourmet dishes at approachable prices, ever-changing art on the walls, and late-night hours, always serving until midnight. The aura, bolstered by servers, cooks, and bartenders who live second lives as musicians, painters, and other incarnations of interesting, manages to be both comforting and cool, with equal dashes of corner diner, neon nightclub, and neighborhood bar. “We carved out a niche by being open late,” said Gandy of one of his secrets to success. “And the people who work here give the place its personality.”
Owning a restaurant was the last thing on his mind back in February 1982, when he followed a girlfriend to Santa Barbara from his hometown of Buffalo, New York, where he’d watched his family struggle in the hospitality biz for the two generations of Gandy’s Restaurant, founded by his grandfather in 1919. He did wind up cooking, though, first at the Philadelphia House at Hollister and Modoc (victim of the Painted Cave Fire) and then for the various kitchens of Brigitte Guehr and Norbert Schulz, where he was featured in Gourmet magazine as chef of Oysters (where bouchon is now). Despite his initial ownership misgivings, it didn’t take too long to realize the next step. “I liked my own gig,” said Gandy.
One day in the summer of 1989, while riding his bike to the beach, he stopped at the State Street/Highway 101 intersection, stared at the long line of cars waiting the four minutes for the stoplight to change, and saw a storefront on Chapala up for rent. The highway was about to be turned into a freeway, but he recognized the short window of opportunity to open a small café that served coffee, sandwiches, and salads to those stuck at the lights. “They’d fall right in the front door,” he said of his Espressway Café, located where Lilly’s Taquería is now. “It was a gold mine.”
When “people started coming for the food instead of the coffee,” Gandy expanded, but then started looking for alternatives, as the building was about to be retrofit. On his way to Montecito Bank & Trust downtown one day, he parked in front of the Riviera Café on Carrillo Street and popped in to ask the owner whether he’d like to give up his lease. “Today might be your lucky day,” the man replied after speaking with his wife. “He slid out, I slid in, and that was it,” said Gandy. “Less than a week later, I was here.”
A year later, he changed the menu and scene to Restaurant Roy, whose name was actually created by artist Brad Nack, one of Roy’s longtime off-and-on servers (musician Spencer Barnitz is another; see his Surviving Santa Barbara story here.) “We made everything $10 including soup and salad,” said Gandy. “That got everyone coming in.”
He eventually took over Jeannine’s next door, and later, with a liquor license in hand, built it into the Jolly Tiger bar, hosting live bands every night of the week (including Jack Johnson’s first solo shows). For years, they were the only place in town that served dinner until midnight — and many nights a week, that still holds true. “It’s amazing what people come in here: performers after their shows, late arrivals at hotels, late flights, people after the movies on weeknights,” said Gandy, who combined the two sides during another remodel a few years later. “You can come in at 11 p.m. and not feel like you’re the last customer in the place. You can just relax.”
The monthly art installations “keep the place fresh,” said Gandy, and he gets a little commission off the piece or two that sells each show. But the vibe is really staff-dependent, so being a place where musicians and artists can pop in for a few months of work in between busier times cultivates a creative culture, he said. “I’m pretty flexible and accommodating to their schedule, and I understand that their other thing comes first,” said Gandy, but he appreciates the bottom-line benefits. “The energy these guys have impacts the place. They’re connected to people.”
This past August, Gandy celebrated 25 years on Carrillo Street, and considers the chunks of time he gets every day between shifts to be all the vacation he needs. “I started out cooking,” said Gandy, who still works the kitchen every Sunday and Monday. “That was what I liked to do the most.”
Restaurant Roy is open for lunch, dinner, and drinks until midnight. See restaurantroy.com or call (805) 966-5636.