In Memoriam: Sunanta ‘Sunny’ Quinn, 1954-2017

The famed bartender at Mel’s and Pascucci, Sunny Quinn loved Santa Barbara. And Santa Barbara loved her right back.
Courtesy Photo

My husband and I have just returned from a trip to Thailand, where we placed my mother’s ashes in a Buddhist temple in Nonthaburi, next to her parents and grandmother. My mom, Sunanta “Sunny” Quinn, passed away on December 27, 2017, after a long, tough battle with cancer.

Sunny was born in Bangkok, Thailand, on September 16, 1954. As a young girl, Sunny was a total tomboy. She grew up playing soccer and learned Muay Thai kickboxing moves from her uncles. Her father was a civil engineer for the Thai government, and her mother was the neighborhood midwife. She was the eldest of six kids, growing up in a family that was amazingly close-knit. Family dinners were a loud affair, lasting hours. They were full of laughter, with spontaneous outbursts of singing and dancing.

She met her first husband, an American in the U.S. Air Force, in Thailand, where they married and where I was born in 1974. My father brought my mother and me to the U.S. in 1976 — we landed in Minnesota and started our new life there. Sunny had great stories about her time in the frigid north: her first experience with real cold weather, making spaghetti sauce with ketchup, driving a riding lawn mower at a church cemetery, and getting stuck in an outhouse in below-zero temperatures.

We moved to Southern California shortly after and to Santa Barbara in late 1978. In August 1979, Sunny gave birth to my sister, Sonya. Her marriage to my father ended a brief time later, and this is when her life began to take the shape that many knew her for in Santa Barbara.

In the early 1980s, she became a cocktail waitress at Ripperetti’s and then learned how to bartend at the Mecca on Milpas Street. In 1982, before the mall was built, her long run at Mel’s on De la Guerra Street started. If that little old pool table in the back room could talk, it would have some stories. She took no crap from anyone and could easily put the biggest guy in the bar right in his place if he acted out. There are several “unconfirmed” stories of ashtrays being hurled across the bar at misbehaving patrons. She was a straight shooter and told you exactly what she thought of you — you only hoped it was positive.

People were drawn to Sunny from the moment they met her. Maybe it was because she made a stiff cocktail and could hustle you in a game of pool, or maybe it was because she was an amazing cook and loved to share her passion for food. Regardless, you couldn’t help but have fun when you were with her.

During this time, Sunny met Kevin, a young Irishman who rode a motorcycle. During their 14-year marriage, they adopted a border collie named Murphy, built a home bar that was legendary, and hosted epic BBQs, dinners, and costume parties. Sunny became an American citizen and was very proud of both her birth country and her country of choice.

After 18 years at Mel’s, she moved on to Pascucci. She was behind the bar at Pascucci for 15-plus years — it was easy to tell when Sunny was working because all the bar stools were full. She loved her customers. She had regular customers from all corners of the planet. When they came to Santa Barbara, one of their first stops would be to have a drink and a visit with Sunny. Even when she fell ill, she couldn’t wait to get back to work because she missed her restaurant family. She encouraged her coworkers to sit down after closing and eat together because she valued that connection that you get with others when sitting around a table and sharing a meal.

Sunny loved Santa Barbara; it was her home for almost 40 years. And Santa Barbara loved her right back. She has often been referred to as the unofficial mayor of Santa Barbara. Everyone has a Sunny story: Maybe she served them their first or last drink on their 21st birthday, taught them how to mix a cocktail, made them an unforgettable meal, or simply treated them like an old friend the first time she met them.

Family was important to Sunny. She hosted family dinners every Sunday night. This weekly meal was always attended by members of her extended adopted family. This meal was sacred; very few weeks passed when she didn’t host this meal. She was a “mom” and “grandma” to many, and she cherished this role. All the kids in her neighborhood called her Grandma Sunny and stopped by her house for homemade chocolate-chip cookies or to hang out with one of her dachshunds, Rafael or Charly.

As I think back on our visit with my mom’s siblings over the past couple of weeks, I am reminded of what a special, one-of-a-kind woman my mother was. Sunny left an impression on everyone who met her. She could light up a room with her amazing smile. She was a wonderful sister, caring mother, doting grandmother, and unconditionally loving friend. She touched so many lives, and we are all better people for having known her.

Donations in Sunny’s memory may be made to the Cancer Foundation of Santa Barbara.


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