For all its historic charm and neon nostalgia, the Paradise Café — which closed in September after 37 years in business — was not the first restaurant to loom over the bustling corner of Anacapa and Ortega streets in downtown Santa Barbara, nor was it the establishment with the longest tenure there. That distinction goes to La Paloma Café, which Jennie Luera founded as a traditional Mexican restaurant in 1940 and ran with her daughters and grandchildren until 1983.
This coming week, after rejuvenating the restaurant’s structures, style, and spirit, Acme Hospitality returns La Paloma to its perch as a neighborhood café. Instead of classic Mexican food, La Paloma is now serving oak-grilled meats, seasonal produce, and Mexican/Spanish/Chumash-influenced dishes under the banner of “Californio” and “ranchero” cuisine. Said Acme’s founder and owner Sherry Villanueva, “We wanted to go back to the roots of what was here on the corner that was beloved by the community.”
The group behind such popular Funk Zone restaurants as The Lark and Loquita, Acme purchased the Paradise at the end of 2019. The plan was to continue operating the beloved café under that name, while modernizing the menu and dealing with years of deferred maintenance. But those goals quickly ran into complaints from all sides, and then came a pandemic, forcing reconsideration of the entire concept.
“We learned a valuable lesson: All things have their lives, their relevance,” said Villanueva. “We tried to take the Paradise and make it better by creating dishes that were scratch-made, by cleaning up the space. In so doing, we made everybody unhappy. The people who loved the Paradise just as it was were unhappy that we changed anything. The people who love us thought it was subpar to what we normally do. We found ourselves in the middle of not really making anyone happy, including ourselves more than anything. This isn’t us,” she said of her group’s first time taking over and running an existing restaurant, which she vowed to never try again. “This isn’t what we do.”
Instead, Villanueva dove into the history of the property, which is still owned by Josephine “Josie” Reynoso, the granddaughter of Jennie Luera. “My grandparents came from Silver City, New Mexico, where my grandfather worked in the silver mines,” said Reynoso. Upon making it to Santa Barbara, her grandmother worked in a laundry on State Street as her grandpa worked construction jobs. “They were working to save money to have a Mexican restaurant,” she said. “That was their goal.”
For $7,000, they purchased the property — then home to an Italian bakery — in 1938 and started serving enchiladas, tamales, menudo, rellenos, chile verde, and a complete menu of classic Mexican cuisine two years later. The family first lived in the house next door — now the dining room — and in rooms above the kitchen before moving into the home behind (and connected to) the restaurant in the early 1950s.
Reynoso’s mom, aunts, and cousins all worked there, but she mostly remembers running under the tables and being shushed away by the staff. “I was always in the way,” recalled Reynoso, an only child who was born in 1940.
Luera, whose husband died in 1956, ran the restaurant until 1983, when she sold it to Randy Rowse and Kevin Boss, who created the Paradise Café. “That was her life right there, the restaurant,” said Reynoso. Luera died at age 89 in 1991, and Reynoso — who worked as a teacher’s aide for her career and has three grown children of her own — became landlord when her mother died in 2014. She’s been attending the recent staff trainings to relay these stories to the next generation
Villanueva is proud to share this almost forgotten legacy of Santa Barbara history, especially because it surrounds three generations of strong female ownership. “It’s been really fun to bring her family story back to life and really celebrate it,” she said.
La Paloma will be the eighth establishment in Santa Barbara created by Villanueva, a former marketing consultant for Target who is also in the midst of refurbishing and opening two historic hotels in Grass Valley and Nevada City. To ensure a smooth transition to La Paloma, Villanueva brought in expertise from other restaurants in the Acme universe, which is managed day-to-day by her two ”right-hand men,” Skyler Gamble and Treg Finney. “It’s been really fun to see everybody gather around the newest little sister,” said Villanueva of the team effort.
Unlike The Lark and Loquita, which attract those seeking a dining experience-as-event, La Paloma will be much more casual. “We want to maintain that level of accessibility and approachability that I think people loved about Paradise,” said Villanueva. “It’s just an easygoing neighborhood café.”
That’s perhaps best evidenced in the “straight-shooting” cocktails. “Nothing fancy,” said Villanueva. “Nobody is lighting rinds on fire.” Think margaritas and, of course, the paloma as a signature drink.
For the food, Villanueva took inspiration from the mural on the exterior of the building, which depicts a Californian cowboy that many believe to be Leo Carrillo. “When that guy goes home for dinner, what’s on the table?” wondered Villanueva, who then went down a rabbit hole of research into traditional Californio cuisine.
Helping to answer that question is Chef Jeremy Tummel, a third-generation Santa Barbara resident of partial Chumash descent. “That’s exactly the type of food I would love to do,” said Tummel. “To me and a lot of people from the Santa Barbara area, whether they know it or not, this food is in our DNA. This is what people would have eaten here 100 years ago.”
Inspired by his mom’s cooking as well as Julia Child, who he’d see both on TV and at the farmers’ markets as a kid, Tummel studied cooking at Santa Barbara City College, where he actually got to cook for Child. “That was the greatest thing on earth,” said Tummel.
After teaching at SBCC for three years, Tummel helped open the Bacara resort and then worked at Epiphany, briefly as a private chef, and at the Wine Cask. He moved to Los Angeles to work for the Border Grill group in 2008, where he learned a lot about operations, and was then lured to the Stillwater Bar & Grill at Pebble Beach, where he stayed for seven years. In 2015, he got married, was certified as a sommelier, and nearly won the American Culinary Federation’s annual cooking competition in Orlando.
While living in Monterey, he met John Cox from Big Sur’s Post Ranch Inn. Cox was being hired by the Fess Parker family to open The Bear and Star in Los Olivos, and he lured Tummel to follow him south. Though he enjoyed living in Solvang, Tummel yearned to return to the ocean side of the mountains. “I’d been gone for over 10 years, and I was ready to come back home,” said Tummel, so he took a job at the reopened Miramar Hotel in October 2018, staying for a year.
He’d been “flirting with Acme” for a while when Villanueva tapped him to help run the new Paradise. His first shift was March 15, 2020, the start of the pandemic. “That was the day Acme announced they are closing all the restaurants,” he said. “It was just bizarre.”
Tummel was happy to move the restaurant in a new direction and is excited to share his take on regional favorites like Santa Maria tri-tip, golden hominy and green chili casserole, and what he’s calling “Mission Chicken,” based on a recipe for an oak-grilled bird with lemon, sea salt, and rosemary that he learned while working the I Madonnari festival while at SBCC.
“It’s really honest cooking,” he said of the ranchero food. “There’s not a lot of cream or butter or heaviness to anything. It’s just natural food, and it’s the food that I like to eat at home. It’s food that brings up memories.”
Aside from the menu, most of the recent work at 702 Anacapa Street was structural in nature, including renovations to the murals, which Luera commissioned 80 years ago. (They’re hoping for a grant to work on the exterior one.) The design team reupholstered the original barstools — which Luera bought from a catalog in 1938 — with cowhides, and highlighted the vintage tiles in the bar, which include cockfighting scenes, rumored to have occurred out back. Beneath the prominent mural, which depicts the Aztec fallen romance legend of Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl, the walls are now adorned with contemporary art by Nicole Strasburg.
In line with the attention to detail that’s made The Lark and Loquita two of the hottest seats in Santa Barbara for years now, Villanueva’s team resurrected La Paloma into a heartfelt ode to history and an exploration of what eating was like in the region’s earlier days. For now, due to the constraints of COVID, La Paloma will only be open for dinner from Thursday to Monday — not counting this week, when it debuts to the public on Tuesday and Wednesday, November 24 and 25. There is also a robust takeout meal program, and the plan is to evolve into a seven-day establishment serving lunch and brunch, as well, when the pandemic permits.
Once the café is fully operational, Villanueva hopes it will again be a place where friends gather for casual midweek meals, city councilmembers meet for power lunches, and downtown residents stop for a quick drink and bite. As to the haters who are likely to come out of the woodwork to chastise the end of the Paradise on Yelp and social media?
“The reality is that sales at the Paradise Café have been declining year over year for many years,” said Villanueva. “The local love and support that used to be there was dwindling. The Paradise needed to change. It was dying. That’s what I think people don’t understand.”
Most elated at the return of La Paloma is Josie Reynoso, who gets to see her family’s legacy in all its glory. “We’re all happy,” said Reynoso, who lives near San Marcos High today. “It will be nice to see families bring their kids in to show them where they liked to eat. My grandmother is probably smiling right now.”
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