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New Fine-Food Market Looking to Fill the Void Left By Jimmy’s

The Grapevine Fine Food Market will occupy half of the building on Canon Perdido Street. The other half is likely to become a museum to honor Asian history.

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Co-owner Claudette Pentz plans to open Grapevine Fine Food Market where popular bar and restaurant Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens once flourished, at 126 Canon Perdido St. in Santa Barbara. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)

Anyone who replaces Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens — the popular bar and restaurant that marked the final vestige of Santa Barbara’s once-vibrant Chinatown — has big shoes to fill, and the owners of a new high-end food market set to open in the building believe they will measure up.

A couple of years after the widely mourned closure of Jimmy’s, the Grapevine Fine Food Market plans to open in the next few weeks. Located in just the restaurant portion of Jimmy’s at 126 Canon Perdido St., Grapevine is aiming to be a cross between a gourmet food market and a restaurant-to-go with an international flair.

“It’s going to be like fine dining, but everything is to go,” said co-owner Claudette Pentz, who has been getting her hands dirty seven days a week while diving into the necessary indoor demolition, remodeling and refinishing work. “The food will be very fresh, and there will be something for everyone: vegetarians, vegans, meat lovers, pastry lovers. And there will be a small grocery store with items from around the world that are really hard to find.”

Much of the food will be European, including rarefied delicacies such as sweet-and-sour Polish jam and Russian chocolate. It also will be a place where a person can find a rack of lamb, veal, fresh local produce and home-baked bread, said Pentz, a native of South Africa.

The chef, co-owner Viktor Kerschbaumer, is a native of Austria and has served as the executive chef of the Mezzanine Restaurant in the Newport Gateway Towers near John Wayne Airport in Irvine.

Meanwhile, the bar side of Jimmy’s will remain closed for about a year longer, while the organization that purchased the building, the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, continues to work on ideas for turning it into a museum dedicated to Santa Barbara’s Asian ancestry.

Jarrell Jackman, the trust’s executive director, said that the trust’s first choice was to have a Chinese restaurant take over the foodie half of the building, but he said no such restaurants stepped forward. Grapevine, he said, came with good credit and a positive recommendation from a restaurant management company. 

He added that the trust also appreciated the fact that the food market was willing to sign a 10-year lease vs. a 15- or 20-year lease.

“We hope someday to have the whole building as a museum, and to do a 15- or 20-year lease was just too long,” he said. “They were still interested, and felt they could do well in a 10-year period.”

Jackman said he hopes the trust will have the resources in a decade to expand the museum, but added: “Maybe 10 years from now we’ll have some different ideas. Ten years is a long time.” By as soon as May or June of next year, the bar portion of the building will reopen as a museum dedicated to Santa Barbara’s Asian history, which has long lived in the shadows of the city’s celebrated Spanish heritage.

Kept intact will be the bar, as well as the first booth upon entering the restaurant, he said. Lining the walls will be panels with vignettes memorializing the neighborhood’s history. On special occasions, such as fundraisers, the bar may serve alcohol. 

The trust purchased the building from Jimmy’s son, owner and chef Tommy Chung, for $3 million. The purchase included two apartments that are rented out as affordable units, and a ground-floor three-bedroom house that is rented out to students of Antioch University.

The Trust is hoping that the state of California will ultimately purchase the property and incorporate it into the historic El Presidio area.  In the meantime, the Trust is struggling to pay its steep mortgage, and is looking for donors.

“It’s running a deficit of over $100,000,” he said. “We’re deeply concerned.”

Jimmy’s was owned and operated by Jimmy Chung, who built the restaurant in 1945 at the urging of a contractor who held a deep appreciation of historic preservation. The contractor, Elmer Whittaker, was a shop teacher at Santa Barbara High School who owned many properties in Santa Barbara. He wanted to see a revival of the Chinatown that had been all but leveled in the 1925 earthquake, Jackman said.

The original Chinatown had existed mostly in the area on Anacapa Street now home to the Lobero Theater and El Paseo restaurant. The first Chinese businesses included a laundry shop, herbal stores and restaurants. Largely through the efforts of Whittaker, the post-earthquake Chinatown sprung up on East Canon Perdido, in buildings that now house shops and restaurants with no Asian connection, such as the Sojourner Café and Three Pickles.

Across the street from Chinatown was a Japantown known as Nihomachi, which included a Buddhist church on the Presidio side of the street, as well as a hotel, across the street from the current post office. The church was demolished in the 1960s — possibly by the city to make room for the Presidio restoration, Jackman said — and was moved to the lower east side on Milpas Street. The hotel was demolished by a landowner, who replaced it with a parking lot.

Now making up less than 3 percent of Santa Barbara’s population, the Asian community was once a substantial local presence. Some historians estimate that the Chinese population at one time made up 10 percent of the city’s population, Jackman said, though he added that the figure is debated among scholars.

In any case, the first Chinese immigrants came to Santa Barbara in the 1860s to work for Southern Pacific Railroad Co., and later took jobs working for local farms. The Japanese tended to work as gardeners for private residences and fishermen, he said.

As for Grapevine, it eventually may expand its business to include catering, but initially it will be a pick-up restaurant. Its food market also will sell imported oils, pickles, cheeses, chocolates, grains, European coffees and more, Pentz said.

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at [email protected]

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