Eating At Joe’s

Montecito-based Gene Montesano is a busy man. His group of investors, called collectively “Red Tiger” and consisting of him, his Lucky Brand co-founder Barry Perlman, Trent Merrill, and Jim Argyropoulos, own and/or operate Lucky’s, Tre Lune, D’Angelo’s, Bucatini, and Caza D’Or. Montesano runs the Peace Store on State Street, Lucky Brand, and Lucky Brand Kids. He is putting the finishing touches on a re-do of Joe’s Cafe, and by the end of 2007, Café Luck, on the site of the former Mousse Odile, should also be open. Debuting in the first week of July is Montesano-backed “Ever,” a high-end men’s and women’s casual clothing store that will have taken over the space formerly occupied by Montecito Pet Shop on Coast Village Road. We caught up with Gene and his executive chef Alex Castillo (formerly of Wine Cask) at Joe’s, which Montesano purchased four years ago and which has been one of Santa Barbara’s most popular hangouts dating back to 1928, where we conducted the following interview:

Q. You purchased Joe’s four years ago and continued to run it exactly as it had always run until recently. The bar/restaurant has now been closed for three weeks, but construction seems to be going at hyperspeed; when do you plan to re-open?

A. By the end of June. This was a long-planned renovation but we were only able to start a couple of weeks ago.

Can you give us an idea of what you plan to change?

All the original booths are being re-built and will be put back along the three walls where they have been for more than a quarter-century. They’ll have new leather cushions, and they’ll have a rake to the back so you can actually be comfortable [the old booths were straight-backed]. They’ll sort of look the same but you’ll know something’s different when you sit.

We’ve ripped all the floors out and replaced them with new oak floors, and stripped the bar and taken it down to its natural wood and then we’ll re-stain it. We’ll be changing the front doors back to something that was more original, and we’ve completely re-done the kitchen.

How about the menu?

The menu will be examined and the most popular items will remain, like the Omaha Sandwich, the French Dips, Fish & Chips, and Burgers, and we’re going to add new items. If somebody from Montecito wants to have a Lucky’s quality steak, and wants to go downtown, you should be able to have that at Joe’s. We need to get people to start coming back to Joe’s and I think these changes will do it.

Everybody that was here did the best they could do… under the circumstances. I just want to take it and make it better. I think there’s a chance we can do that. I would like Joe’s to have the best food on State Street, and not necessarily the most expensive, but the best.

Alex: We’re going to go for simple and fresh. The French fries are going to be made in-house; everything will be made here, like freshly squeezed orange juice, [etcetera].

Gene: We’ll be serving lunch and dinner seven days a week, so we’d like Joe’s to be one of those places you love to go to because it’s cool and the food is good, instead of just coming because the drinks are three times stiffer than anywhere else, you know?

Will you be adding new staff or keeping the old employees?

Gene: Most of the longtime employees will stay, unless they quit, so we won’t be getting rid of anybody; we’re just going to make it better. Frankie (Francisco Calvillo) the bartender, who’s been mixing drinks at Joe’s for 37 years will be back. Jim O’Toole beats Frankie by a year; he’s been at Joe’s for 38 years. He’ll be back. So will Nico (Nicolas Castañeda), Sal (Salvadore Reynoso), Tino (Constantino Jaramillo), Floor Manager Lu Verna Peery, and Val (Valentin Gonzalez). They’ll all be back, either managing the front, running, waiting tables, or serving drinks. Even longtime bookkeeper Pauline Stetson is staying.

Speaking of bartending, any changes planned there?

Gene: Most everything will be back. Draft beer will also return, four in total, including Firestone and Bass. The Wurlitzer will be back in the corner; we’ve even got a lowered bar near the serving station, where a person in a wheelchair could sit and drink.

So, the new Joe’s won’t really look like the old Joe’s?

Gene: It’s not really a new look. It’s gonna look like what Joe’s should have looked like. We’re actually taking it back to the original Joe’s, instead of the mix of Joe’s and Maggie McFly or whatever else was here before. Funny enough, Jason Blake, the lead guy at Ever, his great uncle was Joe Ferario.

My inspiration is an old photo that we took down – and that’s going back up – of Joe Ferario and his original team. In that picture, the bar looks like what the bar is going to look like now. So, out goes the flagstone and shellac; in comes new wood, brass foot rails, hooks for ladies’ purses. The chandeliers are staying and the tin ceilings have only been painted.

What about the “Joe’s” sign; will you be fixing that or changing it?

No. That sign is gonna stay just the way it is. Besides, I’d be paranoid that if I touched it, who knows what the city would make me do with it? So, I’m just leaving it as it is. It’s a most beautiful sign. As a matter of fact, one of the reasons I bought Joe’s is because that sign is just a killer. It’s fantastic, and you can’t do that anymore. •••

Gene and Alex plan to “invite everybody we’ve ever met” to an enormous opening party during the first week of July. They’ll offer either a free burger “or a burger at the price they were in 1928 or something like that.” For interior decoration, they plan to take pictures of the regulars and the employees and fill the walls with their photos. Gene says it won’t be the “Old Hollywood” look that has been so successful in Lucky’s and Tre Lune, “but something with the same aesthetic that people seem to like.”

The completely renovated kitchen, will be open, just as it was, but there will be nothing “upscale” about it. “It’s not a display kitchen,” Alex stresses, “it’s a working kitchen.”

Joe’s boasts nearly 160 seats, including bar stools, and can hold perhaps as many as 180 patrons when those standing at the bar are included in the count. The color scheme will change from “free elementary school brown” to more beige and Navajo White. Construction is overseen by Morgan DeLucia, who, says Gene “handles all my construction.” As for his future eatery plans, Gene says he’d like to do “a fusion thing one day.”

Joe’s Cafe, 536 State Street (805-966-4638) is scheduled to re-open July 1.