After 33 Years, Santa Rosa’s Gary Chu’s Closes

A generation of diners grew up on Chu's Chinese cuisine. His namesake restaurant closed this week.

Gary Chu at O’Sake

A hand-scrawled sign reading “Closed” hardly seems a dignified end to what was once the North Bay’s most celebrated Asian restaurant. But after more than three decades, Gary Chu’s eponymous restaurant has shuttered permanently.

Chef/owner Gary Chu is isn’t too wistful, however, about the restaurant that put him on the map. Instead, the 60-year-old says he was ready to let the restaurant go after several years of tough labor markets, dwindling business, a family tragedy and a changing downtown Santa Rosa food scene.

“After 33 years of a business, we think we need new blood downtown,” he said, when reached at OSake, his Japanese-style restaurant in Santa Rosa, which will remain open. “We are just tired, and the business wasn’t doing very well. With the labor market so tight, we just couldn’t find anyone to work,” he added.

“My 80-year-old mother was washing dishes,” Chu said. Though the decision to close the restaurant was in his mind for several years, in early May, he drew the line. With a skeleton crew of just five kitchen staff—six including his mother—he decided that the loss of just one person would force his hand. On May 6, he lost one of the five remaining staff.

“I wish I could keep going, and I tried for four or five years, but I didn’t pay myself or my mom, and it’s just not worth it anymore,” he said.

In addition, Chu said that his brother, who was running Gary Chu’s day-to-day, was grieving the loss of his son last year, adding to the pressure.  “I can’t watch my family suffer. I said, ‘Let’s just stop’.”

Chili crab at Gary Chu's
Chili crab at Gary Chu’s

Chu opened the restaurant as China Palace in 1983, closing briefly in 1991 to revamp the concept into a more modern, gourmet Chinese restaurant. Lauded by critics, Gary Chu’s Gourmet Chinese Cuisine was a relatively new concept in the early 1990s, bringing diners an elevated, California-inspired Asian menu. In the last decade, however, the restaurant lost much of its luster as Chu’s attention shifted to his other restaurants, OSake, and SakeO in Healdsburg (which he no longer is involved with). But regulars continued to appreciate Chu’s signature martini prawns and lemon chicken, though reviews were more mixed, and became increasingly negative in the last year.

“I’m not saying I’m old, but the place needs younger people in it,” said Chu.

As owner of the Fifth Street building, Chu hopes to lease it to a new restaurant, and says he has some interest already, “but I’m not in a hurry,” he said.

“I feel great. Now I can have coffee with my wife in the morning,” he laughed.