Tuesday, January 17, 2017
When I was in college 20 years ago, Chuck’s of Hawaii was the place to take both your dates and your parents. The dimly lit, low-ceilinged, torch-touting upper State Street steakhouse was simultaneously comforting with a casual island vibe, romantic in a rendezvous way, serious about their salad bar, and meticulous about their meats, ensuring a memorable evening for all intents and ages.
Little did I know that we were tapping into a formula developed 30 years earlier, one that continues to endure in 2017, as Chuck’s celebrates its 50th anniversary. “We have people who come in in flip-flops and their Hawaiian shirt, sitting next to some guy in a suit — everyone feels comfortable,” said Chuck’s Manager Brad Schuette, who’s been working there since 1980, when he was a 15-year-old. “For a big part of our return customer base, we know what they want before they walk in the door.”
His slightly more tenured colleague Steve Hyslop, who started washing dishes at Chuck’s on Valentine’s Day of 1979, attributes their steady success to “the relationships we’ve developed with our staff and guests.” Explained Hyslop, who now co-owns and manages Chuck’s Waterfront Grill in the harbor, “We’re seeing four generations right now.”
I joined these two men one recent afternoon in their bar to meet Chuck’s owner Larry Stone, who developed the restaurant in the exact same location back in 1967. Raised mostly in the San Gabriel Valley, Stone studied engineering at San Jose State and surfing in Santa Cruz. Then he headed to Hawai‘i for four years post-college, where he worked at the original Chuck’s Steakhouse in Waikiki (founded in 1959) in between sailing adventures to Tahiti and Australia.
When Chuck’s creator Chuck Rolles offered his employees the chance to spread his steak and salad bar concept to the mainland, Stone took him up on the offer and scoured the California coast for the right location. After considering La Jolla, Laguna, and Palos Verdes, Stone decided to brave the Santa Barbara scene. “Everyone told me that it was a nice place but you couldn’t make a living,” said Stone (to which Schuette quipped, “Nothing’s changed.”).
Much was different in Santa Barbara then. Downtown was dead, recalled Stone, “and Cabrillo Boulevard was dark all winter — there wasn’t a car down there.” Meanwhile, going out to dinner was still a formal affair. “All of the other restaurants were fancy,” said Stone of places such as Talk of the Town and Casa de Sevilla, which required jackets. “I didn’t have a sport coat!”
So he took a bet on opening Chuck’s of Hawaii as a more casual place on upper State Street, whose commercial core was growing because it was close to the Hope Ranch and San Roque neighborhoods as well as many motels. He found a vacant spot in a new office building built by the Sumida family and convinced them to let him turn it into a restaurant. (The Sumidas have been supportive landlords ever since.)
On day one, they sold 100 meals. “It was a good feeling,” remembered Stone, who was the first cook and spent every day of his life there for one and a half years. In the 1970s, he started opening other restaurants in Idaho, which is where he met his wife and where he lives much of the time. Stone’s restaurant empire also expanded in the Santa Barbara area over the years, including partnerships with the Beachside Café, the now-shuttered Jasper’s in Goleta, and the Ballard Inn in the Santa Ynez Valley, which he and Hyslop later sold to the Kazali family. In 1999, Stone and Hyslop opened Endless Summer and the Waterfront Grill in the Santa Barbara Harbor; the latter added Chuck’s to its name for familiarity purposes in 2002 to combat the hospitality hit of the 9/11 attacks.
Of course, the flagship location endured its own strategic evolution over the years. A seafood menu was launched in the 1980s when pasta was king and beef was considered unhealthy — the halibut still rivals the steaks for popularity — and, more recently, a bar menu was created to respond to the Great Recession when people wanted cheaper options. Such changes have kept the old formula uniquely relevant: Though the Chuck’s of Hawaii chain eventually grew to include 100-plus restaurants nationwide, only a fraction remain, and the Santa Barbara location is the sole survivor in California.
But nostalgia is Chuck’s most powerful bait since much is the same as when it opened in 1967. There’s the salad bar, the iconic menus printed on old Lancers wine bottles (which Stone originally hand-painted himself), the ever-popular mai tais, and those expertly charred steaks. In fact, with tiki bars back in style and today’s ingredient-fatigued diners seeking a return to straightforward food and authentic settings, Chuck’s next decade may be more golden than ever.
“It’s even gotten more casual here,” said Schuette. “But people still want quality food and service.”
Chuck’s of Hawaii’s 50th anniversary celebration at the upper State Street (3888 State St.; chucksofhawaii.com) restaurant is already sold out, but the same deals are being offered at Chuck’s Waterfront Grill January 23-26. Call (805) 564-1200 for reservations.