Paradise Cafe, Santa Barbara | Credit: Courtesy

The Paradise Café, which opened on the corner of Anacapa and Ortega streets in 1983 and became a preferred watering hole and eatery for generations of Santa Barbarans, has closed for good. 

Upon shutting down in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 37-year-old restaurant never resumed operations, not even for takeout. The ownership group Acme Hospitality, which had just purchased the iconic restaurant in November 2019, announced that a new concept is in the works. 

Randy Rowse, owner of the Paradise Café in 2014. | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

“After 37 years, the Paradise Café is closing its doors for good,” read a statement from Acme. “It enjoyed a long and well-deserved run as a neighborhood watering hole, a place for celebrations, date night headquarters, and as the best patio in downtown. It’s no wonder that the community fell in love with this iconic corner of Anacapa and Ortega. We are grateful to you, Santa Barbara, for your support over the years.”

The statement continued, “As difficult as change may be — especially in 2020 — history is in the remaking. Stay tuned for an exciting new concept coming soon.”

There was a bit of uproar when Acme, which also owns a number of Funk Zone hotspots, including The Lark and Loquita, bought the restaurant from longtime owner Randy Rowse, who stayed on as a partner. Rowse sold to Acme right around the time he stepped down as a Santa Barbara City Councilmember after 10 years of service to City Hall. 

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Regulars worried what might become of the classic menu in the hands of a younger chef like Weston Richards, who’d been running the creative kitchen at Acme’s now-closed Les Marchands Restaurant & Wine Bar. Early reviews were mixed when the Paradise reopened following a brief remodel in January 2020 — many praised the updated items, while others lamented any changes whatsoever — but the new energy never had proper time to gel when the coronavirus stopped everything.   

When asked for a comment on the news, Randy and Janet Rowse sent in these words: 

“As I write this, Bruce Springsteen’s recording of ‘Atlantic City’ is running through my head. Paradise Café had a great run and had been the second-oldest restaurant in the city under the same ownership when we left at the end of last year. We had a fabulous relationship with the family that has owned that property since 1938. Great memories of friends and their children followed by their children’s kids. Janet and I remain forever grateful for the relationships and loyalty we enjoyed while handing out Paradise Burgers and Margaritas.  

“It lasted a lot longer than anyone would have imagined. For all the great times and fond memories, things need to evolve to survive. To say these are difficult times is a gross understatement, particularly if one is trying to run a restaurant, but I have faith that the Acme team is going to develop something exciting and fun in the old Paradise location.

“So cheers and thanks to all the customers and friends from over 37-plus years! Thanks to some loyal employees like Tony and Bruce who you all came to know well. We’ll be around, and very likely sitting on a stool next to you in the newly imagined bar.”

On Thursday afternoon, Acme’s owner Sherry Villanueva explained the situation in more detail. 

“We fell in love with the vintage charm of the buildings at 702 Anacapa Street that have lovingly been home to a neighborhood cafe for more than 100 years,” she said. “When the Paradise Cafe replaced the beloved La Paloma Cafe in 1983 after nearly 50 years in operation, there was consternation, as change comes hard for our community. After 37 memorable years as the Paradise, we decided it’s now time to reimagine the future for this iconic location.”

Villanueva said that they tried for two months to operate the Paradise in a similar fashion earlier this year. “We cleaned up the space and kept the menu largely the same while improving the food quality standards, but it wasn’t working,” she explained. “This made us reflect on whether it’s possible to ‘freeze’ an institution in time and we determined that it’s not.”

With the pandemic lockdown, Villanueva’s team had time to “reimagine” the future while reevaluating existing restaurant business models, much like the entire hospitality industry is doing. From there, they developed a new concept, which will be unveiled soon. 

“Our new concept will pay homage to the property’s storied past and retain its familiar old-school vibe while celebrating its long history serving our community,” said Villanueva. “Stay tuned for exciting details to come.”

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