Vacation was a rare treat, relaxing time off that Jill Shalhoob earned working six days a week at her Santa Barbara restaurant, managing longtime employees and schmoozing customers who know her as the local butcher’s daughter.
Shalhoob finally found the time last May. She flew out on a Thursday and checked into what was supposed to be a one week’s stay at a beachside condo in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
Her revelry was rudely interrupted early the next morning at 3 a.m. by a frantic text message from a customer who lived near Jill’s Place, Shalhoob’s 27-year-old restaurant at 623 Santa Barbara St.
“The restaurant is on fire,” the neighbor had written in all capital letters.
A two-alarm blaze had ripped through Jill’s Place, gutting the kitchen and causing severe smoke damage to the rest — thankfully when the eatery was empty.
So ended the beach getaway.
Shalhoob was on the first flight back Friday morning, weighing whether she should completely remodel a restaurant with thousands of dollars in damages.
“Having everything stop so suddenly with no plan … that’s kind of disruptive,” Shalhoob told Noozhawk. “I’ve been working my whole life. How do you come back? I had such good feedback from customers. These people wanted this restaurant back.”
Finding her answer, Jill’s Place underwent an extensive renovation before reopening for lunch on May 10 — the anniversary of the devastating fire.
Dinner service followed last month, and loyal locals are once again funneling through the dining room and bar for old favorites and a couple of new menu items.
Jill’s Place is known for its fine cuts of meat, largely because the restaurant sells Shalhoob Meat Company fare. Shalhoob’s father, Jerry Shalhoob, founded that business at the current Jill’s Place location in 1973 before it expanded and moved to the larger space at 220 Grey Ave., where it operates today.
A fourth-generation Santa Barbaran, Shalhoob began working in her father’s butcher shop at a young age before graduating from Santa Barbara High School and then opening Shalhoob Deli & Catering in 1987 as a 23-year-old with zero restaurant experience.
Locals started calling it Jill’s Place, so the name stuck. Fifteen years later, Shalhoob expanded into a full-service restaurant and closed down for a month of renovations.
That was her longest hiatus from work until last year.
“A year is a long time,” Shalhoob said, sitting in the dining room of her restaurant on a recent evening just before the dinner rush. “It was an opportunity to do it the way I wanted. We created a local spot.”
A linen basket that spontaneously combusted in a utility room behind the kitchen caused the fire, Shalhoob said she later learned from investigators.
In addition to a fully upgraded and open kitchen, the Jill’s Place dining area got a facelift customers say makes the restaurant lighter and brighter — new and improved.
“I guess it just feels different,” she said.
A new light-up sign still broadcasts “Butcher’s Daughter” on the wall, and Shalhoob continues to receive a steady stream of hugs from locals who appreciate the reopening.
Shalhoob returns thanks, especially since construction took six months longer than she had originally hoped.
She doesn’t mind coming into work six days a week these days, but she’s thinking about hiring a night manager to take on some of the load.
Noticeably lost in thought — probably reminiscing about that oceanside view — Shalhoob said she’d like to vacation in Maui or back to Mexico sometime this fall.
“I’m due for one,” Shalhoob said, smiling. “Actually, I’m due for two.”