THE HISTORY OF JOE’S CAFE. SINCE 1928
Joe’s Cafe, a venerable Santa Barbara dining and drinking institution, is the oldest restaurant in the city. Over the years, it has become a favorite for locals and tourists alike, who mingle over cocktails or chat during dinner in a buzzing, traditional atmosphere. The exceptional ambiance underscores its rich heritage and long history.
In the Beginning
The original location of Joe’s Cafe was 512 State Street, just down the street from its current site. Before becoming Joe’s Cafe, the lot hosted many diverse businesses over the years, including: Sing Lee’s Chinese Laundry, “Lord” Harry Harcroft blacksmith shop, Boston Restaurant, K. Konda Restaurant, De Hart’s Second Hand Store and Domenico Pignocco’s Soft Drink Stand & Pool Hall, which later became the Channel Bar.
Joe’s Cafe is Born
Joe Ferrario, an Italian immigrant, and his wife Adelina bought the Channel Bar in 1928 -- and Joe’s Cafe was born. The advent of the Great Depression the next year did little to squelch Joe’s enthusiasm for owning his dream restaurant. His hard work and magnanimous personality quickly established Joe’s as a favorite.
The repeal of the 18th Amendment in 1933 ended 14 years of Prohibition. Seizing the moment, Joe became a distributor of Acme Beer, brought from San Francisco by boat and unloaded at Stearn’s Wharf under tight security. The good times – and draft beer – were here again.
Joe’s Cafe flourished during World War II with the opening of two sub-assembly defense plants in Santa Barbara. The transplanted servicemen and workers enjoyed the friendly environment of the restaurant and the potent beverages at the bar.
Every Joe, Joe & Harry
Joe retired from the restaurant business in 1948 and sold to another Joe, Joe Govean, who further cemented the reputation of Joe’s Cafe as a great family restaurant and meeting place. When the second Joe retired, the business passed to Harry Davis who made his mark on Joe’s Cafe in two major ways.
Harry decided that it was difficult to see Joe’s Cafe from the street, so he designed a new, bolder marquee. This landed him in a tousle with Santa Barbara City Council, who didn’t immediately see the perfection of the dazzling sign resplendent with more than 100 light bulbs. Harry eventually had his way, and the sign is still used today.
Harry also hired Mildred Kelly to work at Joe’s Café. She was the first waitress/hostess and joined an all-male staff who threatened to leave because they thought a woman couldn’t do a good job. Mildred proved them wrong in short order – and paved the way for future women at Joe’s Café.
Nancy Peery’s Influence
Harry passed the torch in 1969 to Carpinteria native Nancy Peery whose deep understanding of the restaurant’s iconic status served as her guiding light and helped keep Joe’s, Joe’s. Nancy’s community involvement put Joe’s Cafe at the forefront of many events.
Joe’s Cafe moved to its present location – 536 State Street – in 1985. For the next 18 years, patrons continued to enjoy the place, eating great food, drinking stiff cocktails, and soaking in the local color.
The present owner, Gene Montesano, purchased Joe’s Cafe in 2003.
Gene's entrepreneurial spirit has played a central role in many companies, such as Lucky Brand Jeans, Lucky’s Steakhouse, Tre Lune Restaurant, D’Angelo’s Bakery, Civilianaire, Jean Shop, Ever Clothing and more.
Under Gene’s stewardship, the legacy of Joe’s Cafe continues into its ninth decade: a vibrant downtown destination with the stiffest cocktails around, great meals, a fun atmosphere, and a diverse crowd.
Joe's Cafe is a Santa Barbara tradition. Wonderful food, great value, good times.
JOE’S CAFE TIMELINE
- 1886 - Sing Lee’s Chinese Laundry, future home of Joe’s Cafe, opens at 512 State St.
- 1896 - Blacksmith “Lord” Harry Harcroft works partially on the same lot
- 1901 - The Boston Restaurant opens at 512 State St.
- 1903 - Santa Barbara Restaurant takes over the location
- 1905 - K. Konda Restaurant launches
- 1908 - De Hart’s Second Hand Store begins
- 1919 - Prohibition starts on January 16 in California. On January 15, people cram into bars and restaurants to drink up the remaining stock amid a festive yet sad atmosphere.
- 1924 - Domenico Pignocco’s Soft Drink Stand and Pool Hall opens
- 1925 - An earthquake (6.3 on the Richter scale) damages much of downtown Santa Barbara
- 1928 - Joe Ferrario buys the Channel Bar – and Joe’s Cafe is born
- 1929 - Great Depression hits; Joe’s Cafe thrives with help from family and friends
- 1933 - 18th Amendment is repealed and Prohibition ends. Joe becomes distributor of Acme Beer; Joe’s Cafe becomes known as a “drinking man’s institution” by locals
- 1935 - Isolated Santa Barbara becomes a favorite spot for rum-running smugglers. Rumors swirl around Joe’s Cafe, hinting it was one of the first “speakeasies”
- 1942 - Joe’s Cafe flourishes with influx of servicemen and workers to Santa Barbara due to wartime industry
- 1948 - Joe Ferrario retires from the restaurant business and sells to Joe Govean
- 1954 - Joe Govean retires and sells to Trevellian Enterprises, who owns the business for nine months before selling to Harry Davis. Harry designs and installs present-day marquee and hires first female employee
- 1969 - Nany Peery, Carpinteria native, becomes owner of Joe’s Cafe
- 1985 - Joe’s Cafe moves to present location, once a Maggie McFly’s: 536 State Street
- 2003 - Gene Montesano purchases Joe’s Cafe
- 2007 - Gene Montesano remodels and restores Joe’s Cafe to its original 1930’s classic style
- 1998 - 2018 Joe’s Cafe wins “Stiffest Drink” category in Best of Santa Barbara for the 20th time
- 2018 - Joe's Cafe Santa Barbara's oldest restaurant celebrates it's 90th year anniversary