The downtown Paradise Café might not be the second coming of Rick’s — made famous in the classic Hollywood film Casablanca — and Paradise owner Randy Rowse is clearly a far cry from Rick Blaine, the hard-bitten, heartbroken, pseudo-cynical sentimentalist played to perfection by Humphrey Bogart. But for Santa Barbara, Rowse and his Paradise might have been the next best thing.
For more than 30 years, Rowse — now about to step off the Santa Barbara City Council after a 10-year stint — has been serving drinks, not to mention some food, to journalists, politicos, campaign consultants, land-use planners, high-powered bureaucrats, would-be moguls, former captains of industry, know-it-alls, lost souls, hangers-on, and a large population of individuals who might now answer to the sarcastic salutation, “Okay, boomer.”
Now, no more.
Rowse has officially acknowledged what has long been whispered: that he is throwing in the towel at Paradise, taking off his apron, and turning over the keys to Acme Hospitality’s Sherry Villanueva, the entrepreneurial engine that’s given rise to the Lark and helped transmogrify the Funk Zone into the tail that’s wagging the dog of Santa Barbara’s Central Business District.
“I will retain a partnership interest in the deal, but will no longer be the guy who garnishes your mashed potatoes,” Rowse stated in a written release. Villanueva, he said, will bring “much needed youth, energy, innovation and cash (all of which are not in my wheelhouse) and make the Paradise into what it needs to be to go forward.” Rowse said that the current staff are part of the deal and will retain their jobs. “The changing of the guard should take place around New Year’s,” he said.
For Rowse — now ensconced somewhere in the nebulous mid-sixties demographic — the sale of the restaurant and his exit from City Hall qualify as tectonic events. “I’ve decided it’s time,” he only sort of explained. “Time for what? No clue. But I’m feeling ripe, so pluck me before I hit the ground and rot.”
Rowse’s departure from the council, effective next year, will mark a major tonal departure for that body. He is currently the only councilmember who is not a registered Democrat. Politically, Rowse has increasingly played the role of the often-exasperated, middle-of-road, business-minded councilmember trying to talk common sense to new arrivals impatient to change the world.
Rowse has been blessed with a curmudgeonly congeniality that has allowed him to maintain relations — and lines of communications — with more-progressive-minded councilmembers. Before joining the council, Rowse was a significant player in the downtown business community, playing a leadership role with the Parking Commission and what was formerly known as the Downtown Organization.
He was initially appointed to the council to fill a vacancy created when Das Williams, then a councilmember, was elected to the State Assembly. At that time, Rowse managed to secure the appointment when Grant House broke ranks with the liberal and progressives then on the council to support Rowse. At the time, House mistakenly believed that Rowse would not seek election if appointed. As Rowse made clear almost immediately, he never made any such pledge. For House, it would be a decision — at least among his liberal colleagues — that would haunt him the rest of his days.
Rowse’s appointment helped pave the way for a brief period in which conservative Republicans held a council majority. In recent years, however, the pendulum has swung far to the left, and Rowse has made little secret of his discomfort with the increased sway of the Democratic Party not just electing candidates but pushing policy.
Rowse’s announcement came shortly after final election results came in showing that challenger Alejandra Gutierrez upset incumbent Jason Dominguez for the District 1 race by just eight votes. Those results may be the closest ever in city history, and they took a record 10 days to finalize. On election night, Dominguez was ahead by 31 votes. But left uncounted at that time were a raft of ballots turned in on the last day of a mail-in election. Although both candidates are registered Democrats, the local Democratic Party leadership — led by Mayor Cathy Murillo and County Supervisor Gregg Hart — made Dominguez’s defeat a high priority. The three feuded openly on the council dais when Hart represented District 6, and both Murillo and Dominguez are vying for the Assembly seat recently made vacant with Monique Limón’s announcement that she’ll be running for State Senate.
On the council, Dominguez brought a keen intelligence, an outspoken style, and a penchant for lengthy interrogations coupled with frequent recitations of his professional and academic credentials. As a representative of the Eastside, he fought high-density workforce housing projects. These, he argued, were built only at the expense of existing housing units that were often affordable by neglect or age. Replacing them with newer, fancier, more expensive housing, he insisted, was a net loss for affordable housing. But given abiding personality conflicts, Dominguez frequently found himself on the losing end of such debates.
Dominguez, whose wife is expecting a child in the next couple of months, has announced he will not challenge the final tally and demand a recount. (To do so would cost him anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 to initiate. If the recount determined that he, in fact, had won, he would get that money back.) Despite his defeat, Dominguez has stated that he is still in the running for the vacant Assembly seat.
Correction: Gregg Hart is currently a county supervisor, not a city councilmember. This story was revised on Nov. 17 to clarify the terms of Rowse’s departure from the Paradise and arrival at council.