Simon’s Bar and Café is nothing short of a political museum.
Tucked away between a car rental agency and a dry cleaner at 1415 16th street, Simon’s has become a household name for Capitol oldies and newbies alike, a place peppered with political anecdotes since its establishment in 1984.
Steve Maviglio, a top consultant to Assembly Speaker John Pérez, a principal of Forza Communications and a former spokesperson for former Gov. Gray Davis, described the restaurant as having “sentimental value” to Capitol folk. “It’s a must-stop for any political junkie in Sacramento,” he said.
For many of its habitués, it’s a second home – a place for relaxation. “I fell in love with Simon’s, because Simon’s represents a sort of home away from home,” said Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco. “It’s not pretentious, it’s like just going to grandma’s home. If you want no one to bother you, or if you want to hangout with your friends, you can do that. If you just want to watch TV for a while, you can do that.”
It’s also a good networking spot. “It was an opportunity to get to know your colleagues and spend some time together, maybe incidentally talk about work,” recalled Bill Lockyer, the state treasurer.
Reminiscent of other classic Chinese eateries, Simon’s is swathed in cozy dim lighting with a small splatter of oriental paintings and decorations. Recently remodeled, the restaurant now has repainted walls, new chairs and tables, and a redecorated bathroom – yet its overall décor has remained the same.
Look beyond the inclusive, circular bar, and you’ll see the restaurant’s most striking and exceptional feature: a trio of walls lined with photos and messages showcasing California’s political icons.
Some of the faces include Gov. Jerry Brown, Senate Leader Darrell Stenberg, D-Sacramento; former Assemblyman Brett Granlund – and more. One frame preserves a 1997 edition of the California Journal with former Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante on the cover, on which he wrote: “Then and now, Simon’s is one of the best political ‘hangouts’ in Sacramento!”
It’s an impressive snapshot of memories, especially in the world of term limits, where legislative faces seem to change almost monthly.
The day that former Assemblyman Bob Hertzberg was elected speaker in 2000, he had a beer with former Republican leader Scott Baugh at Simon’s. Chan captured the moment, and the photo still hangs on the wall. “There had been tension between the Republican and Democrat leaders for years,” Hertzberg recalled. “We met there often after to discuss issues, we never had a conflict and remained good friends to this day.”
There’s even a picture of Representative Mike Honda, D- San Jose, and Chan with Dusty Baker, who manages the Cincinnati Reds and played high school baseball in Sacramento.
To grasp why the political watering hole is so fiercely cherished and has remained such a timeless haunt in an otherwise fluctuating Capitol landscape, one must also spend a few moments with the man who dedicated 29 years of his life to its service – its creator and owner Simon Chan.
“When I first opened, I was a self made man with very little capital,” he recalled, hands clasped together pensively. Chan was the only employee at his restaurant when he opened it in 1984, working 12 to 14 hours daily for the first two years until he could afford hiring more staff. Now, the restaurant has 12 employees and is approaching its 30th anniversary next year.
Prior to opening Simon’s, the entrepreneurial Chan worked about 10 years starting in 1973 at Frank Fat’s, the venerable capital restaurant on L St. When asked why he opened Simon’s, he replied: “I want to have my own place, and Frank Fat’s will be my role model.”
Fat’s may have been Chan’s exemplar, but Simon’s has undeniably created a potent legacy of its own in the Capitol. What is its inimitable ingredient? Chan himself. From his stretch at Frank Fat’s, he gathered an impressive clientele of politicians, lobbyists, and staffers, who all remained his friends and loyally followed him to Simon’s when it first opened.
“Recognition is very important,” Chan said. “Call their names when they walk in, make them feel at home – basically, it’s how you treat your customers. You treat them well and everything will follow.”
Adam Keigwin, senior vice president at Mercury Public Affairs and former chief of staff to Senator Yee, called Chan a “friendly” guy who is “fun to be around.” “Simon is critical to the location itself,” he said. “They (Chan and his family) make it so everyone is welcome. If they weren’t there, I don’t know that people would still be going to Simon’s per se.” Chan’s brother worked at Simon’s for 26 years before retiring earlier this summer. Simon Junior, Chan’s son, currently works at the restaurant.
The joint is also a political melting pot. “You’ve got a good cross section of the capital community where you have Democrats and Republicans, legislators and staff, third house folks – people from all different perspectives,” said Keigwin.
One of the restaurant’s earliest patrons included the late Sen. Alfred H. Song, D-Monterey, the first Asian American elected to California Legislature, who served for 16 years until 1978.
“He’s just like a godfather to me,” Chan said. The two had met when Chan was working at Frank Fats. Chan recalls him joking with former Sen. Ruben Ayala, D-Chino, back when Ayala was still a freshman in the Capitol. “He don’t really know too much about the Capitol, and they (Ayala and Song) always make fun of each other, and joking around,” he remembered, smiling.
A black and white photo of Song hangs on the wall along with a plaque commemorating the restaurant’s 10th anniversary from Sen. Ayala in 1993.
Rick Lehman, a lobbyist at Lehman Levi Pappas & Sadler and former Democratic Assembly member and Congressman from Fresno, calls Simon’s a cross between Frank Fat’s and the old Torch Club, a popular late-night hangout. “Twenty years ago, it kind of became the place to go. It kind of replaced Frank Fat’s, because it was a lot less expensive,” he said.
“There were just a lot of stories down there, a lot of jokes – it was one of the few places where people got together socially.” If he there was anywhere he would have a retirement party – it would be there, he added.
When former Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, headed the cordial caucus, a bi-partisan group promoting amicable conduct at the Capitol, the group often held events such as karaoke nights at Simon’s. A few years back, former speaker and current Los Angeles Councilman Herb Wesson even celebrated the Super Bowl there.
In addition to the recent renovations, Chan also added new happy hour drinks and appetizers. Despite the flow of newer restaurants to the scene, Simon’s is set for the challenge.
“We’re ready to rock n’ roll!” Chan laughed.
Ed’s Note: Jessie Lau is a Capitol Weekly intern from the public affairs jopurnalism program at the University of California Sacramento Center.