Santa Barbara News-Press – By Tyler Blue
After running a deli and catering business for 15 years, Jill Shalhoob felt the yearning for a new challenge. “Some people take off to travel; some go back to school. I came up with this idea for dinner.” She set out to transform her stark space into a cozy dining room, build a bar and attract a different clientele. In developing the menu and ambience, a family connection provided inspiration. Shalhoob’s grandmother, Helen Romp, and her husband, Jim, had owned Arnoldi’s for over 30 years. “My idea was to base this whole restaurant on Arnoldi’s. This menu is build off of that. Their customers were local people.” The Shalhoob family’s Santa Barbara history began around the turn of the 20th century when Jill’s great grandparents emigrated from Lebanon. Her grandfather was a priest who ran the Greek Orthodox Church, and he and his wife raised nine children. In the modern era, the family gravitated around the little building at 632 Santa Barbara Street. Jill’s father, Jerry, opened the Shalhoob Meat Co. there in 1973.
Jill and her brother John started going to work with dad at the age of 11. By the time they hit high school, both were immersed in the profession. “We learned all the cutting and everything there is. It’s hard working in a 47-degree room.” After seven years on Santa Barbara Street, the meat company moved to another location and Jerry leased the building, but that business was short-lived. Jill was working at Cantwell’s Market, learning a lot and enjoying it. “My father called me one day and said, ‘I got the Santa Barbara Street store back. Let’s open a deli. ‘ I was like, ‘OK’. “When I hung up the phone I’ll never forget that feeling that washed over me. I was 22 years old. I was very excited and didn’t quite know what it meant.” Two weeks later, the dell was already open. After three days, Jerry went back to the meat company and left the keys to Jill.
An island amongst small businesses and state agencies, Shalhoob’s was a natural lunch spot. “I have the same people that have been coming in for 20 years,” she says with awe. “I hear their voice on the phone and I know what they’re going to order.” The Shalhoob name is virtually synonymous with meat. According to Jill, quality lies in “being really conscience of the grade and the cut. We hand-pick and pay attention.” Their steaks are cooked on a high-heat, flat grill in “kind of an old school way. We season our meats. We believe in flavor.” Since introducing dinner in 2002, there have been some other significant developments. For starters, the restaurant has adopted a dual identity as Jill’s Place. Its namesake explains, “The customers added that.”
People were introducting me to their friends, saying ‘This is Jill and this is her place.’ Two years ago the side patio got a total makeover and just last month the whole storefront was redone. A loyal staff with little turnover has been a key to Jill’s success. “I have been so lucky to have them. I have people that have been here 12 years. Most of my dinner staff has been here since we started.” She’s been going strong since 1987 and Jill Shalhoob still sees things through a humble prism. “Just Friday night, I stood back there and look out and I can’t believe all these people are in here. I definitely don’t take it for granted.”