Simon Chan, the founder and proprietor of Simon’s Bar & Cafe in downtown Sacramento, died at 69 years old Sunday night.
News of Chan’s death was first announced Sunday night by Save Simon’s, a Facebook group started five years ago to keep the then-struggling restaurant and bar in business. Chan’s son, Simon, confirmed his father’s death to The Sacramento Bee, and family members said it was due to COVID-19.
“It is with great sadness to report that Simon Chan has passed away. He will be so missed by our community,” the post from Save Simon’s read.
Visit Simon’s late at night before the coronavirus pandemic and you’d find a dive with strong cocktails and a menu split between Chinese dishes and fried bar bites. But the quality of that inexpensive food made Simon’s one of the best bang-for-your-buck options in downtown Sacramento and Chan’s rapport with state workers and elected officials helped the bar stay open since 1984.
The walls of the bar are covered in photographs of Chan posing with some of the state’s most recognizable politicians, some of whom he likely met as a Frank Fat’s bartender in the 1970s and ’80s. Governors Jerry Brown, Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger all stopped in on several occasions and Chan kept drinks coming into the wee hours of the morning after legislative sessions concluded as Republicans and Democrats broke bread, longtime customer Don Wilcox said.
Wilcox was a bachelor with few local friends when he moved to Sacramento to work for a legislator in 1992. When Chan offered him a running tab, he knew he had arrived. He became a regular at Simon’s, sometimes just stopping by the bar for a meal and to talk to Chan about what growing up in China was like.
Years later, Wilcox quietly underwent tongue and throat surgery. When Chan found out why one of his regulars had been missing, he dropped a carton of broth off at Wilcox’s house — then egg flower soup, then broth with macerated vegetables, then soup with tofu, every single day as his mouth gradually healed for 36 consecutive days. Wilcox didn’t even know who had been leaving him containers until he caught Chan in the act on Day 9, he said.
“Simon was a kind man and he’s somebody that always seemed to be excited to see me and offered kindness to me and everyone else,” said Wilcox, a chief of staff for various elected officials for the last 21 years. “To a soul, all of us should have a Simon in our lives.”
The bar was a family affair, with Chan’s brother John in the kitchen and Simon Jr. gradually taking the reins from his father. Simon himself was there nine times out of 10, said Adam Keigwin, a customer and friend for about 20 years.
Keigwin described Simon’s as “Sacramento’s Cheers bar,” a place where everybody knew your name and the host was never in a bad mood. He texted Simon about two weeks ago, only to receive a message back from Simon Jr. saying his father was hospitalized.
“It was always a place where you felt comfortable and if you were having a hard day or a rough day, you’d go and Simon would greet you with a smile and you’d kind of forget about your worries for a while,” said Keigwin, a lobbyist for Mercury Public Affairs.
Sacramento County Board of Supervisors member Phil Serna eulogized Chan in a Facebook post Sunday night.
“Very sad news indeed. I introduced myself to Simon and ‘Simon’s’ back in 1991 when I was a senior at Sac State. I lived in a CADA studio apartment above Luna’s (‘member Art Luna?) and would on occasion order a one-carton dinner from across the street. Almost always pork Chow Mein.
“Later in life, and like so many others in political life, I’ve spent many a memorable evening dining on superb Chinese interpretations of wild game harvested from the Sacramento Valley that was honored with Simon’s delicious preparation. Duck, venison, goose, elk … you name it, Simon and his staff prepared it with incredible attention to detail, flavor and presentation. But of course all of those tremendous culinary successes followed some of Sacramento’s best cocktails. Simon will be missed but never forgotten,” Serna wrote.
State treasurer Fiona Ma indicated that Simon Jr. would keep the restaurant running. Simon’s was one of the first Sacramento restaurants to temporarily close as the virus became recognized as a major American threat last March, and has remained closed throughout much of the pandemic.
“Simon Chan was an icon in Sacramento. I got elected to the Assembly in 2006 and Simon said that (former Assemblyman and Congressman) Mike Honda used to do karaoke at Simon’s and he would welcome more Karaoke nights,” Ma wrote on Facebook. “And that started our Karaoke Caucuses for the past 15 years.”
A small tribute had been set up outside of Simon’s at 1415 16th St. on Monday morning, with a vigil scheduled for 7 p.m.
Chan is survived by his wife Amy, his brothers Johnny, Sunny and Brian and his son Simon Jr.