In what has been considered “the worst kept secret” in town, Acme Hospitality will officially take the reigns of local favorite Paradise Café in January.
Councilman Randy Rowse, who has been involved with the restaurant at 702 Anacapa St. since its inception in 1983, told the News-Press that talks between he and the hospitality company have been ongoing for the past several months.
“It’s something of mutual interest,” said Mr. Rowse, who will continue to be “deeply involved” with the restaurant moving forward. “Obviously I’m invested emotionally in the place after all these years, but I think that their company has a whole lot of respect for where we’ve been. It’s a good thing.
“I’ll have an interest and I’ll be around,” Mr. Rowse explained. “Obviously you don’t want to lose connection with all the personal friendships that you’ve made. I think they’re interested in me being around and saying hi to people, showing some continuity between the old and the new.
“I can be the eye candy.”
Mr. Rowse said he doesn’t expect much to change despite the new crew coming in. The restaurant known for its cordial atmosphere and oak wood grill will continue to provide locals with what they’ve come to love.
“A lot of our regulars have been our regulars since day one,” he said. “It’s always been to do something reasonable, be kind to people, give good service and a good product for the price. That’s about all the magic I’ve got.
“I don’t think they’re planning on coming in and making sweeping changes,” he added.
Mr. Rowse, a 1976 graduate of UCSB with a degree in Geography, started working in the restaurant business during his time in college. Along with his original partner, Kevin Boss – a fraternity brother of Mr. Rowse during their time in Isla Vista – the two worked at Chuck’s Steakhouse, a job he still holds in high regard.
“I think about it now and back then I was hanging out with pretty girls and drinking discount beers,” Mr. Rowse said. “Why did I ever leave?
“I always call UCSB the greatest culinary arts school on the coast even though they don’t have a culinary program,” he said with a laugh.
The restaurant is located in a 1915 vintage brick and stucco building that once housed an Italian bakery. La Paloma Café opened at the location in 1938, specializing in Mexican food. Mr. Rowse took over the lease in 1981 and in the spring of 1983 opened Paradise Café.
“It wasn’t about being in the restaurant business per se,” Mr. Rowse said. “It was more a matter of ‘it’s the mid 60s and 70s – what do we do now?’”
When it first opened, Paradise Café was one of the few food places in the area.
“We had a great 80s and a really good 90s and, like everything else, there are a zillion more places in town,” he said. “We never really did a lot of changes to anything – little nuance changes but not much. There are a lot of places that can make it that way. Downtown has gone through its changes and there’s a big evolution right now. I really think that downtown has a start of a positive direction “
The Acme team has promised to continue to deliver all of the old favorites – while making necessary updates to the menu, cocktail and wine program and the physical space. Sherry Villanueva, Acme’s co-founder and leader, told the News-Press that her team wants to come in and get to know the regular guests and what they enjoy before proposing any changes. The restaurant expects to close briefly in early January, as Chef Weston Richards, formerly of Les Marchands in the Funk Zone, will be leading the kitchen to create a locally sourced, seasonal, scratch-made menu.
“As a long time Santa Barbara resident and a frequent guest of the Paradise over the last 20 years, I am thrilled at the opportunity to steward this iconic restaurant into the future,” Ms. Villanueva said in a statement.
Ms. Villanueva has earned a positive reputation in town for her work in the Funk Zone, with restaurants like The Lark, Loquita, Helena Street Bakery, Tiger Tiger and Pearl Social. While speaking to the News-Press, she said she wants to make Paradise its own place while breathing new life into the restaurant.
“One of the strengths of Santa Barbara is that it’s a collection of distinct neighborhoods that represent the local flavor and spirit,” she said.
Mr. Rowse is thrilled to have Ms. Villanueva and her team take the reins.
“She’s got a great track record locally and I think she’ll embrace the customers and locals that we have,” he said. “I’m excited about it. If I had to choose somebody out of the blue to do this, that’s exactly who I would have chosen.
“I think this is going to be one of the hot corners in downtown pretty quick,” he added. “I think its one of the linchpins in the revitalization of the downtown. The energy that she’s created in some of the old, vacant buildings downtown has really knocked everybody’s socks off, so hopefully they repeat the phenomena up here.”
The terms of the deal were not disclosed.
Mr. Rowse will be leaving the City Council after nine years on the docket. He was appointed in 2010 and was reelected in 2011 and 2015. He said he sees many similarities between the restaurant industry and city government.
“What you do in this business is you entertain, serve and take care of people. Really it’s the same gig over there,” he said. “Facilitating the day-to-day needs of what people want is really what that’s all about. It’s not about grand visions and a 10-year plan, it’s about what does the average Joe need and how much does he want us to get out of the way, which has always been my thing. Just be reasonable about stuff. Top-down government isn’t pleasant in any circumstance, especially not in a city.”
As he prepares to leave the council in January, Mr. Rowse reflected on his time at City Hall.
“I’ve seen the worst drought in recorded history, and we’ve seen these amazing fires and floods and disasters, and now this retail apocalypse,” he said. “We’re not alone in all of that stuff, but I’ve seen a lot over the years that I’ve been here.”
One accomplishment he is proud of during his tenure is the implementation of the city’s Ambassador Program – which includes uniformed ambassadors who engage with businesses and visitors to address behavior, maintenance and aesthetics issues in the downtown area.
“That’s a multiplier of our PD,” he said. “It basically puts a lot of uniformed, official presence out there. While they’re not cops, they’re somebody at least watching what is going on.”
When asked if there was anything he wanted to accomplish in his last few months on council, Mr. Rowse quipped “I’m usually the one who will try and apply the brakes to those kinds of things.”
He encouraged his fellow council members to have a sense of continuity and civility on the council.
“When we start going at each other up there it doesn’t impress anyone,” he said. “I think we’ve got a good group of people up there and they all care about the important stuff. Leadership is really about that. It’s trying to set the example. What we don’t have nationally is leadership that sets a civil example – but exactly the polar opposite.”
Mr. Rowse said he isn’t sure about his future plans, but for now will focus on wrapping things up at Paradise Café and on the council. He is confident that Mr. Villanueva and her team will carry on the legacy well.
“The intention is that they are here to acknowledge and respect that Paradise legacy and improve it,” he said. “If I sat around and had a few less years on my body and a few more bucks, I would be thinking along the same lines. This place needs furnishing, new carpet… to hit the reset button.”