JIMMY’S ACCORDING TO TOMMY

Santa Barbara’s Chinese history dates back to the late 1860s. The first influx of Chinese people came here as construction workers for the Santa Ynez Turnpike through San Marcos Pass, originally a Chumash route over the Santa Ynez Mountains that was completed in 1869. Within 10 years, a thriving community had formed and centered in the first block of East Canon Perdido. Few walking trips to the theatre were made without encountering Chinatown’s dimly lit shops and faint scent of opium that filled the air. Chinese played a key role as fishermen and farmers tending local vegetable gardens for the community. This bustling community included a gambling establishment located above the Masonic Temple at 25 East Canon Perdido and a smattering of opium dens throughout the neighborhood. By the 1900s, there were 400 Chinese, about 10% of the population then in Santa Barbara.

After the Chung family relocated to San Francisco from China in 1862, a son, Wah Hing Chung, moved down to operate what became a prosperous laundry on Carrillo Street next to the former Carrillo Hotel (now the location of Hotel Andalucia). He was a trained French chef and, eventually, wound up at the Arlington Hotel. His son, Jimmy, joined the family from China when Jimmy was 12 years old. Industrious and outgoing, Jimmy opened his first restaurant, The Friendly Café & Bar, in 1938, on the 700 block of State Street (now Fat Burger). He also operated from what is now Emilio’s, on Cabrillo Boulevard, where the family lived in the back.

Jimmy’s wife didn’t like the fog and wanted to move, so in 1947, when Elmer Whittaker made a proposition to relocate to Canon Perdido, the family graciously accepted. It was here, more than 10 years after his father’s death, that Jimmy settled in his eponymous establishment. In all its time, Jimmy’s became a Venus flytrap of after-work conversations, glasses of beer, grasshoppers (Jimmy’s specialty), times of jubilation and melancholy, and enough memories to fill the hall and bust open its tandem of red front doors. Jimmy died in 1970, leaving one of this five children, Tommy Chung, to run the place in his stead. The following is an interview with owner and chef Tommy, who on July 29 closed Jimmy’s for good.

Q. Did your grandfather know how to cook or did his wife run the kitchen?

A. There were no women. He was allowed to come to the U.S. because he was a businessman.

Did you grandfather later send for his wife?

No. He remarried and started a new family here in Santa Barbara. I was born here and went to Lincoln Elementary School.

Where was that?

It was located at Cota and Santa Barbara Streets; the Saturday Farmers’ Market lot.

Did Whittaker make your dad a partner?

No. He (my father) bought it from Elmer and as a matter of fact, it used to be an Italian bakery. They did deliveries just like you guys (Our Daily Bread).

There are rumors that this area used to host opium dens.

I don’t think so. Ah, come on, do tell.

…and there’s tunnels everywhere. Really, this was already an established neighborhood when we moved in. There was even a Bank of America. Where the Daily Bread is located was an herb doctor.

What year was this neighborhood’s heyday?

The fifties and maybe early sixties. The Japanese lived on one side of the street (Buddhist temple as well), Chinese on the other.

What changed the demographics of the neighborhood?

The Chinese left the neighborhood in the sixties. Families grew and went to the big cities; kids went off to college. There was no opportunity here so they had to leave. Parents got old and retired into communities where it was much easier to live.

You’ve got quite a bit of property here. It’s like a family compound.

There’s a house and we made an additional apartment when my brother got married. We like to keep it in the family. There’s also a small studio. There’s quite a history. My older brother lived here when he married and raised a family; my sister got married and lived here too; I got married and live here. Willie, our bartender, lived here as a bachelor; Ester (waitress) lived here when she was going to UCSB and got married; then Nancy (Ensemble Theatre) moved in and is still here. That’s where it’s at.

What got you involved with the restaurant?

I grew up in it; did everything, eventually taking over in 1968.

Is everything in the dining area original?

Eighty percent yes.

Jimmy’s bar has a reputation of serving strong drinks.

(laughs) My dad was the personality behind Jimmy’s. I wanted people to come here not just for the drinks, but because they want to come for the food. Just like the bakery. People can come to experience your personality, but the product is most important. You have to have the product to complement the atmosphere and the people you meet. It’s a package. Because we’re small and I cook in the back, a lot of people don’t know me.

What’s your style of cooking?

Let’s put it this way. I cook the way my dad did when he was alive; Cantonese- American with some Mandarin and Schezwan dishes; it’s my own approach to cooking.

Your specialty?

It’s difficult to say. I think I’m very flexible. Our almond duck is very popular as well as some of my own creations. We have to be competitive with other Chinese restaurants in town.

So you have someone interested in purchasing the business?

We’re not selling the business; we’re selling the entire property. We’ve had lots of inquiries. It will be a family decision.

I hear you’re moving to Camarillo. What will you do all day long? Won’t you be bored?

I don’t know yet. I haven’t had a chance to think that far ahead: it’s on a day-to-day basis right now. Maybe play some golf with Willie.

The good news is that you’re retiring. What’s the downside?

All the customers who have been loyal and have come here through the years. They show an outpouring of sadness that we’re closing. We’ve had generations of customers dining over the years. That’s the hard part.

What do you say to them?

It’s hard to say anything. You just thank them for being such loyal customers and good friends. Hopefully, our paths will meet along the way.