A bittersweet ending to a landmark restaurant
Brothers close the doors of 48-year-old Hong Kong Inn, but are looking to sell
By Michael Sullivan 12/06/2012
Patrons sat at the bar with tumblers half-full of exotic drinks and ice, garnished with tiny paper umbrellas. One couple was playing quintessential tunes from the 1940s, a perfect sound to accompany the atmosphere of the Hong Kong Inn. It was a dreary winter night on Nov. 29, one day before the co-owners, the Kwan brothers James, aka Jimmy, and Thomas, aka Tom, shuttered their 48-year success story.
“I’m tired,” Jimmy, 76, said. “It’s time to retire.”
Starting off in the building, in 1964, where Clark’s Liquor Store now stands on California Street, Jimmy, then an 8-year immigrant from Hong Kong and a former foreign exchange student at Ventura College, partnered with Wellman Jue, William Jo and Danny Chin (his three brothers-in-law) and his father, Leung Sum, and opened the Hong Kong Inn. The business took off during a time known for free love and a rapidly growing surf culture.
Within 10 years, Jimmy was ready to expand. In 1974, Jimmy partnered with his brother Tom, and construction began on what became a favorite of numerous multigenerational families in the following decades. The Tiki-Southeast Asian theme resonated with locals and Jimmy applied his prior bartending experience at the Ojai Country Club, making it a place where everyone knows your name … or where you could hide away and remain anonymous, taking in the lively atmosphere, and enjoy the featured Polynesian reviews.
Over the years, the Hong Kong Inn became a booming success, affording the Kwans the ability to purchase the nearby gas station and build a four-unit apartment complex next door, where their children would stay when visiting and help them run the restaurant.
As their children went off to pursue their own dreams, however, Jimmy said that he and his brother found they had reached the pinnacle of their longtime restaurateur career. Preferring to keep it the family-run atmosphere, which became harder to do, the brothers decided to close the business in favor of time with their families.
“We are really excited to travel and see our grandchildren,” Jimmy said.
Tom, 69, took much pride in his work.
“We are the only Chinese restaurant to have served Cantonese Chinese food in Ventura,” he said. He noted that most, if not all, other restaurants serve Mandarin. Though the dishes are the same, Tom said that the weather is warmer is southeast China and therefore the food isn’t as spicy, or isn’t spicy at all.
It was a bittersweet moment for the nearly identical-looking brothers. One could sense the relief of the pending retirement, but their kind and casual ways with their patrons set the tone that the two truly loved what they did and who they worked for.
“All the people in Ventura have been so nice to my family,” Jimmy said.
Ventura residents Dennis Russell-Hard and his wife of 37 years, Vicki, reminisced about their times at the Inn.
“I’ve been coming here since the late ’80s,” Dennis said. “It’s too bad this place is closing. It’s sad.”
The once well-lit sign shining brightly off Thompson Boulevard near California Street has now been shut off for nearly a week but there is hope for those who saw the Inn as a home away from home. Since the announcement of the closure of the Inn, Jimmy said, he has received some calls from those interested in purchasing the restaurant. And by this reporter’s deadline, the Kwans are still open to the idea. For those interested, Jimmy said to give him a call at (805) 340-2583.