MARILYN MCMAHON, NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER April 19, 2012
The two tiki torches outside burn brightly every night but Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Dinners are served on the same tables made of laminated hatch covers.
Customers sit on the same sturdy captains' chairs with red leather seats rimmed with brass nailheads.
And, yes, they still order from the distinctive menu printed in white on the side of the reddish brown Lancers wine bottle.
For those who crave constancy in a world of breakneck change, Chuck's of Hawaii has been a haven ever since it opened 45 years ago in the same location on upper State Street.
On any given night, several hundred customers, mostly locals, fill the eatery to drink Chuck's Famous Mai Tai, sample the salad bar and feast on classics like Hawaiian Chicken, Teriyaki Ribeye, Angus New York, Grilled Mussels or Fresh Idaho Trout.
Among them is well-known Santa Barbara architect Barry Berkus. He and his family have been patrons for 42 years.
"It's a great neighborhood restaurant. There aren't many of those left," he told the News-Press. "Birthday celebrations at Chuck's are a tradition in our family, especially for my son, Steve, who recently turned 50."
When Mr. Berkus and his wife, Jo, dine at the eatery, often once a week, he orders steak and she chooses salmon.
"They have great steaks and make a baseball for me. It's a certain cut of sirloin," said Mr. Berkus.
When the late actor/businessman Fess Parker and his family lived in Hope Ranch before moving to the Santa Ynez Valley, they were regulars at Chuck's.
"It was the go-to place for a good steak or teriyaki chicken in the early '70s," said Eli Parker, 50, his son. "We really enjoyed the salad bar — we piled on the greens — and it was neat that the menu was on the Lancers wine bottle."
Mr. Parker, who lives in Santa Barbara with his wife, Laureen, and two sons, Clayton, 15, and Jack, 12, carries on the family tradition, dining frequently at Chuck's.
"It has always been the hub. You always run into someone you know — especially at the bar on a Friday afternoon, you run into people you haven't seen in a long time," he said.
"Quality food served in an informal setting is the secret of my success," said owner Larry Stone. "It was a new idea for Santa Barbara in 1967. Those were the days when restaurants like Casa de Sevilla required men to wear suits and ties and the Talk of the Town wouldn't allow women patrons in pantsuits."
When a prospective landlord heard that the servers' uniforms at Chuck's would be Hawaiian shirts and shorts, he refused to rent a different location to Mr. Stone.
And if you're wondering why Chuck's is owned by Larry Stone, the silver-haired, gravel-voiced entrepreneur explained that the restaurant began as a franchise of Chuck's of Hawaii in Waikiki, where he had worked after graduating from San Jose State University in 1960.
"I earned my bachelor's degree in political science and planned to work in city administration, but after serving a six-month internship in the field, I decided I didn't like it and quit," he said during an interview on a recent day at the restaurant.
In 1961, Mr. Stone went to Hawaii to surf and skin-dive, followed by the same in Australia and throughout the South Pacific.
"My goal was not to open a restaurant. I wanted to travel and see what other places were like. I sailed to Tahiti. In Sydney, I worked at a lot of different restaurants as a waiter and bartender. I picked up a good background in how to run the business," he said.
By 1965, Mr. Stone, who grew up in South San Gabriel in Los Angeles County, had decided to open his own restaurant, and with financial backing from Chuck's in Hawaii, he began to check locations in Santa Barbara.
The prospects were discouraging.
"I was told that Santa Barbara had more restaurants per capita than any other city in the country. Fortunately, I met the late Harold Sumida, who had just constructed this two-story building. There was an insurance company on the top floor and a bank in part of the first floor. He offered me the other side, and we have been here ever since. I give credit to him because I was an unproven novice in a new city, and he took a chance on me," said Mr. Stone.
Although the name of the restaurant remains the same, the local Chuck's is no longer a franchise of the Hawaiian eatery.
"I am the sole owner of this one, and Chuck Rolles, the original owner (of the Hawaii location), and I are still good friends," said Mr. Stone, adding that the local Chuck's was an immediate success from the day it opened on Jan. 6, 1967.
"One night, I cooked 330 steaks and 110 steak and lobster combos by myself. They were such good deals. Top sirloin steaks were $2.95, lobster was $3.50 and the steak and lobster was $3.95," he said.
That included the salad bar, and it's still a main attraction.
According to Mr. Stone, the first salad bar in the United States was started by the original Chuck's of Hawaii (although other restaurants have also made the claim) and the local franchise introduced it in Santa Barbara.
He pointed out the sturdy brick platform on which the salad ingredients are displayed. It was built by Roger Whalen.
"Larry and I have been friends ever since we were in the eighth grade at Garvey Junior High School in South San Gabriel. He didn't have any money when he opened Chuck's, so I volunteered to do the brick work. A friend and I started at 5 p.m. and finished at 2 a.m.," said Mr. Whalen by phone from Boston.
"My late wife, Patti, and I went out to the car races at the airport and put hundreds of fliers on windshields in the parking lot to advertise the opening," he said with a laugh.
The 74-year-old retired Santa Barbaran audits classes at Harvard University for two months each year and travels abroad, but when he is in town, having dinner at Chuck's is a must.
"I like to take my mother-in-law, Frances Denton, 95, who lives at Samarkand retirement community," said Mr. Whalen.
According to Brad Schuette, 48, general manager, regulars know that they serve themselves at the salad bar first and then their entree is placed on the same plate.
"In fact, they can watch their steak being grilled while they are at the salad bar. We were among the first restaurants to have an exhibition broiler or open kitchen," said Mr. Schuette, who worked at Chuck's while a student at San Marcos High School and Santa Barbara City College.
One of many longtime employees, Mr. Schuette has been at Chuck's for 32 years. He goes out of his way to cater to customers' needs, another reason for the restaurant's decades-long success.
For example, the original salad bar offered four different dressings: blue cheese, Thousand Island, oil and vinegar and Catalina.
"We can't get the Catalina dressing anymore, but I find it in small bottles for special customers," he said.
When asked about a common complaint that the interior of the restaurant, which is open only for dinner, is too dark, Mr. Stone said, "It's a cozy atmosphere that is conducive to romance."
He chortled as he told about the man who said his wife hated the restaurant because it was too dark, and she would never go there again. "Which was just fine with the man, who said that his girlfriend loved it."
A popular spot for celebrations like birthdays, graduations and anniversaries, the restaurant is usually packed on Valentine's Day, New Year's and other holidays.
"Prom nights used to be huge. They would line up at the door at 5 p.m." said Mr. Schuette. "Now, with everything else so expensive for proms, they don't go to restaurants for dinner. They have them in homes."
Some habitues of Chuck's who have moved away still come back whenever they have the chance.
"One of them is a billionaire, a former resident of Hope Ranch who now lives in Northern California. He always stops by for dinner when he is in town and orders the halibut," Mr. Stone said. "When I asked him if the restaurants in his area served halibut, he said, 'Yes, but they don't make it the same way.' "
The halibut, teriyaki rib-eye steak and 18-ounce T-bone remain the most popular items on the menu, which now includes "Lite Bites and Pu-Pus (an assortment of small meat and seafood appetizers) because people like lighter fare," according to Mr. Schuette.
He and Mr. Stone also called attention to the custom-made wine keeper near the salad bar, where more than 300 bottles of wine — "local wines and a few hard-to-find wines" — are stored at the correct temperature.
"We try to keep up with trends, but we stick to what we do well. We ignored the nouvelle cuisine and pasta craze of the 1990s," said Mr. Stone.