The Gardens live on: SBIFF documentary profiles one of Santa Barbara’s most beloved bars

Jimmy's Oriental Gardens was open from 1947 to 2006. Casey McGarry

Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens was open from 1947 to 2006.
Casey McGarry

The return of Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens, that beloved watering hole, under new owners and the new name of Bob Lovejoy’s Pickle Room is an anomaly. In a world where beloved places vanish or are bought out and torn down, never to return, the case of this bar on Canon Perdido is a cause for celebration, and Casey McGarry’s documentary does right by it.

The 30-something director, who made the documentary in between funding for a longer, even-more personal documentary, remembers the Chinese food from the kitchen half of the establishment as a kid, but was too young to really know where the fun was. But after a chance encounter with Bob Lovejoy, he quickly caught up and knew a story needed to be told.

Filmmaker Casey McGarry

Filmmaker Casey McGarry

“Grasshopper for Grandpa” plays next week as part of SBIFF’s Santa Barbara documentary shorts sidebar, and fans of the bar won’t want to miss its compact tale. Named after writer and bar regular Matt Kettmann’s loving tribute to the place, the documentary breezes through the history — the influx of Chinese immigrants to Santa Barbara, Jimmy Chung opening a restaurant and bar in 1947, his son Tommy’s reign and its lamented closing in 2006.

“I didn’t know there was even a Chinatown in Santa Barbara before making this film,” the director says. “Before making this film I lived in two large cities — New York and L.A. — and I’ve seen a lot of turnover in bars, rich folk coming in to great places and flipping them in a horrible way so that they have no character. I’ve always been drawn to places with a lot of character. Maybe I get it from my parents. I’ve grown up around a lot of antiques.”

Tommy Chung didn’t get to enjoy retirement, and died in 2013. The last part of the film details how Tommy’s friend Bob Lovejoy made sure no developers could get their hands on the place and, with the help of the Trust for Historic Preservation, saved the bar and reopened it. He even brought the bar itself back to its original length.

Santa Barbarans will spot many a well-known face in the film: Maureen McFadden, who lists herself as one of the producers and helped guide Mr. McGarry to essential people, including Nancy Nufer, who has bawdy tales of 1980s revelry; Spencer Barnitz, who has lived on the same block as the bar for years; Milo Wolf, tour guide, historian and also a producer on the film; many members of the Chung family; and of course, Jimmy’s most famous bartender, Willy Gilbert, who returned to take his place making mai tais after the Pickle Room opened last year.

One-time Santa Barbara resident Nate Birkey composed and lent some of his jazz pieces for the film, because as several people note, the sound of Jimmy’s wasn’t Chinese music, it was Willy’s taste in jazz.

“I knew it would make Willy happy to have Nate on the soundtrack,” Mr. McGarry says.

The filmmaker is happy with the film and though he wanted to include more segments — detailing Tommy’s famous Thanksgiving meal for customers — it’s good just as it is.

“The film speaks to Tommy’s character, and Jimmy’s was (so many people’s) bar, a place they could go to a feel part of something larger, like a family.”

“Grasshopper for Grandpa” plays as part of the Santa Barbara Short Documentaries sidebar, 4:30 p.m. February 5 and 6 at the Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St. (just a block away from the Pickle Room!).

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