Beloved Chinese restaurant and bar Simon's emerges as ground zero of Sacramento's urban-growth debate

’There's no bad blood between CADA and Simon's. There is no plan at foot, no wrecking ball’

A column from The Sacramento Bee caused a stir over the long-term fate of Simon’s.

A column from The Sacramento Bee caused a stir over the long-term fate of Simon’s.

Photos by Nick Miller

Rickety cocktail tables and red-leather upholstered barstools. A large banner reminding patrons to respect neighbors by keeping quiet and ramshackle ceiling fans. The back patio at Simon’s, the old-school bar and Chinese restaurant on 16th Street, is dive-level unremarkable. Yet this past Monday night, a fascinating conversation between some of the city’s most influential denizens took place here. The topic: Whether Simon’s should be closing after 31 years in Midtown to make way for new apartments.

Owner Simon Chan stood at the center of the patio with Councilman Steven Hansen to his left. The two were surrounded by more than two-dozen loyal customers, many of them sharply dressed Capitol types in seersucker suits and sporting intricate cuff links.

The reason everyone showed up at Simon’s on a Monday is because, earlier that morning, the movers-and-shakers gathered on its patio had a major Toby “I Love This Bar” Keith moment.

It all started with Sacramento Bee columnist Ryan Lillis and his weekly column, Citybeat. Lillis zeroed in on Simon’s 16th Street neighbors, the rows of market-rate luxury lofts popping up along the block. He reported that the Capital Area Development Authority, which owns the building that houses Simon’s, “envisions an apartment building one day replacing Simon’s, probably six stories tall,” this according to CADA executive director Wendy Saunders.

Lillis’ column on Simon’s inevitable demise caught the eyes of Colin Sueyres, a political consultant who works downtown, that morning. He shared it with some friends—other loyal and longstanding Simon’s patrons including Laura Braden, Patrick Harbison, Adam Keigwin—and by around 9:30 a.m. a “Save Simon’s” Facebook page and Twitter account had gone live.

Things blew up and, by the day’s end, they’d garnered more than a thousand likes and followers.

So much for the perception of Simon’s as relic of a bygone era. “I’ve been seeing hundreds of people on social media, from the Central Valley and Southern California and Roseville,” Sueyres said of the response online. “This is an institution not just for the city, but for the region,” he argued.

A couple-dozen influential loyal customers gathered on Simon’s back patio on Monday night to discuss urban growth and the restaurant’s fate.

It’s true that Simon’s is one of the grid’s oldest destinations. Over the past three decades, it’s been a haunt for politicos and elbow-rubbers alike, welcoming Jerry Brown to Willie Brown and every single local politician worth his or her weight. They make appearances to nosh on brandy fried chicken, sip cocktails and chat with owner Chan—and jockey for a framed photograph on the restaurant’s walls. Even the night doorman, Rod Tyler, who dons a wardrobe customary of a midnight cowboy, is a beloved regular on the Midtown scene.

Founded in 1984, Chan opened the spot after a decade-long stint working at Frank Fat’s. He called the ’80s era a “bad time” for Midtown: The East End Project of state-department buildings had yet to land on Capitol Avenue and, instead, seedy motels dotted the corridor. There was crime, and even prostitution.

Dressed in in a button-up shirt and plain-front slacks, Chan explained this past Monday about how he’s done a lot to activate the street and make it a better neighborhood. And that, because of this, he should have the “the first right of refusal to purchase the building” if CADA sells it, he says.

“You cannot just have Morton’s and Chops and all the fancy places,” Chan said, adding that you need restaurants to serve folk who still want a meal for under $10.

Sueyres says that his group’s goal is, when Simon’s time comes, to ensure that Chan gets “a fair shake” from CADA. “CADA is the state, a very large bureaucracy,” he reminded.

CADA head Saunders says she was “totally taken off guard” by Lillis’ story. “There’s no bad blood between CADA and Simon’s,” she told the patio crowd. “There is no plan at foot, no wrecking ball.” Indeed, the controversy doesn’t pass the smell test.

But the outrage is real, and Saunders did concede that there seems to be a “push and pull” when it comes to more density in the central city, and that—if Simon’s has to relocate—it could be a battleground for this urban-growth debate.

CADA and the city say that the big-picture needs of Sacramento, including density and housing, should be taken into account when discussing Simon’s fate.

New development, including the Eviva market-rate apartments are popping up all around on 16th Street.

But this discussion appears to be one for a much later date. It’s unlikely that anything will happen to Simon’s, which is on a month-to-month lease, during the coming years. CADA needs to evaluate how toxic the land is underneath Simon’s before it sells and initiates any mixed-use redevelopment.

And, if that does occur in the next five years, Chan received some assurances. “If this actually even happens, we’re going to make sure that you are taken care of,” Councilman Hansen told him.

But with a caveat: “It’s probably not viable to keep the building as is.”

Hansen also had some tough love for Chan’s supporters, who are networked in Sacramento, with ties to groups like the Sacramento Kings and Mercury Public Affairs. “When it comes to your watering hole, you care,” Hansen began. “I just want to be careful about setting a double-standard.”

For instance, there’ve been many so-called Sacramento institutions in recent years that have disappeared, or moved, with little fanfare. When another old-time dive bar, the Monte Carlo, was purchased and shuttered on S and 15th streets last year, the predominately black clientele was ousted to make way for a hip new bar that will open later this year and be operated by the Shady Lady team. There was zero community outpouring over this (but, of course, there had been violence and a shooting near the former Monte Carlo site in recent years, and there are no pictures of governors on its walls).

Landmark food and drink spots moving isn’t always a negative. Rick’s Dessert Diner, formerly in a Victorian on K Street, is doing huge business at its new J Street location. Ditto the Pre-Flite Lounge, which moved from the Downtown Plaza because of the arena—sans public outcry—but is enjoying steady business a few blocks away.

Hansen, who has his own fond memories of Simon’s—it’s where he first met former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger—dropped some Spider-Man knowledge on the gathering of local power brokers. “If you’re going to use power in ways that are indiscriminate, know that there are other people who need help, and use it wisely,” he advised.

If and when the time comes for Simon’s to move, for the building to be sold or razed for new development, there will be a notification to residents within a certain perimeter, Hansen assured.

He left the group with these final words: “Just because there is change doesn’t mean it’s the end.”

And then, after nearly an hour of talk, there were hugs and applause. And, of course, drinks. Lots of drinks—which continued well into the evening.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly identified the owner of Simon’s. This article has been updated to correct it.