Simon’s Bar & Café is not the oldest saloon in Sacramento. It’s not the biggest or most fancy. Simon’s is something else—a place that for the past four decades embodied and embraced Sacramento’s identity as a political town.
Despite efforts to diversify and pretend otherwise, Sacramento lives on politics. Without the legislators, staff, lobbyists and consultants who fill the Capitol and shape the work done there, Sacramento would be something like Fresno. Simon’s would never succeed in Fresno.
To enter Simon’s is to go backstage at a theater that houses a long-running play about power and money and mystique. A table by the window is filled with laughter from five Assembly staffers. At the horseshoe bar, two retired senators correct each other about the details of a bill vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. A lobbyist and reporter slam brown rubber dice boxes on the table along the back wall, playing boss poker for drinks. Two pair never beats a full house at Simon’s.
Now the dice are silent. Conviviality has vanished. The coronavirus closed the bar and restaurant last March. A cautious reopening, with indoor seating limited to 25 percent of capacity, brought a few regulars back in November.
But the lights burned just one week. Virus numbers spiked and indoor dining was banned again in Sacramento. Simon’s forms a tight layout at the alley on 16th Street between N and O that precludes expansive outdoor service. Simon’s needs indoor service to survive.
“It’s awful,” says Simon Chan, who built the place from nothing after winning a state liquor license lottery in 1984. “I spent over $10,000 in supplies and everything so we could reopen in November. I can’t make it without the 25 percent indoor. I feel pretty bad.”
The demise of Simon’s has been predicted before. Customers launched a petition to save the joint in 2015, when it appeared the landlord, a public agency known as CADA, might knock down Simon’s to build apartments. Chan dismissed the threat. He figured a long-gone adjacent dry cleaner left the land so polluted nothing could be built there for years.
Younger critics claimed the bar and accompanying Chinese restaurant were irrelevant in an era of bespoke cocktails and small plates. Chan scoffed. Business was fine until COVID-19.
More problems came last summer. During protests over police brutality, looters ransacked the bar. “They even broke my sign,” Chan says.
Simon’s has been defying the odds since it opened in 1984. Chan, a Hong Kong fashion model before emigrating to the U.S., was a bartender at Frank Fat’s. Mixing drinks for a dwindling crowd of legislators and lobbyists, he realized Fat’s was losing its punch.
Political reform laws made it illegal for lobbyists to pay booze and food tabs for elected officials—the grease that made Fat’s famous. Chan wanted his own place, but lacked financial resources. He entered a lottery for new liquor licenses and won. The lottery let Chan secure a license for a fraction of market value. But there were conditions. He had to open quickly. And he had to serve food.
He found a sketchy location on 16th Street. In the early 1980s, the neighborhood was populated with cheap motels, hookers and drug dealers. Chan remodeled a shuttered dive called the Donner and opened his doors.
Friends wandered over from Fat’s, but trade was slow. State alcohol officials made it clear they didn’t think pickled eggs and microwaved burritos qualified as restaurant food. Chan built a small kitchen, run by his brother Johnny. They were lucky to survive the first year.
Then business blossomed. The Capitol crowd found Simon’s charming, unpretentious and discreet—a perfect place to commune. Chan expanded his restaurant, taking over a former sweatshop next door. His special wild game dinners drew celebrities from governors to Huey Lewis. Nearby bars tried to position themselves as Capitol hangouts. Simon’s succeeded by not trying too hard.
Now Sacramento’s premier political cafe is shuttered, its future uncertain. “I’ve been very miserable,” Chan says. “I just turned 69, but this takes a lot out of me. If I don’t work, I don’t know what I’m going to do. It’s horrible.”
In its small way, Simon’s explains everything there is to know about Sacramento. Without Simon’s, it’s hard to know where to start.
R.E. Graswich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.