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Death of Celebrated Restaurateur Marks the End of an Era

The era of camaraderie expired in Sacramento years ago. And now so has that era’s most enduring symbol: Wing Fat.

The popular restaurateur with the funny name -- No. 1 son of legendary restaurant founder Frank Fat -- died of a stroke at age 79 on Feb. 25. Eulogies were paid last weekend in a suburban church before a packed crowd of more than 1,100 -- most of the men wearing coats and ties, on a Saturday morning at 9 o’clock.

Politicians and lobbyists -- many of them retired -- were drawn to the services, scores from out of town. Former state assemblyman and congressman Robert E. Badham, 75, flew up from Newport Beach.

“Wing was one of my very favorite people,” Badham told me. As an assemblyman from 1963 to 1977, he dined at Frank Fat’s “about every evening,” the Republican recalled. “It was a unique place of camaraderie. Willie [Brown] and I became good friends there.”

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Former Assembly Speaker Brown, a flamboyant Democrat whom non-Sacramento Republicans loved to hate, forged strong bipartisan relationships at Fat’s. He delivered one of the eulogies.

“There was nothing more important to most legislators than to get a table at Frank Fat’s,” Brown said. “Wing felt it a high priority to make us feel important -- as important as we thought we were....

“It was a very important part of California history.”

It was important historically for a couple of reasons.

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First, there’s the immigrant dream story.

Frank Fat sailed to San Francisco from China in 1919, a 16-year-old who spoke no English and carried a false ID. You could call him an illegal immigrant.

He picked fruit, washed dishes, swept up, waited tables and for a while slept nights on the stone stairs to a restaurant’s basement. “It was good enough,” he later said.

In 1939, Frank borrowed $2,000 and opened a Chinese restaurant in a rundown former speak-easy two blocks west of Capitol Park. The place quickly became a political hangout, favored not only by legislators but soon-to-be Gov. Earl Warren.

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Frank Fat’s formula, as he once explained it: “You give people good food, a nice place to eat it in and make them happy. Pretty simple, really.”

The Fats made customers happy by keeping their secrets -- political or personal -- and providing a friendly atmosphere. They knew virtually everybody’s first name, treated them the same whether a senator or a staffer and served up tasty dishes.

Frank’s Style New York Steak, sliced and smothered with sauteed onions and oyster sauce, has got to be the best beef dish anywhere. Honey-cured walnut prawns, Sang Gai Shee chow mein and the banana cream pie also are irresistible.

Wing Fat started out as a dishwasher and became manager in the 1960s.

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“This was the era when legislators could fight guys on issues during the day and then have dinner and carouse with them at night,” notes George Steffes, an aide to Gov. Ronald Reagan who became one of Sacramento’s most successful lobbyists. He also became a close friend and golfing buddy of Wing Fat’s.

The ‘60s into the early ‘80s were years when politicians, lobbyists and some of us journalists would make the Capitol circuit at night. We’d start perhaps at Posey’s huge horseshoe bar on the south side of the Capitol, or maybe David’s Brass Rail, a hole-in-the-wall on the north side frequented by Gov. Jerry Brown. Then we’d hit respectable Ellis’ in a new office building, head to Fat’s for dinner and wind up getting blotto at the grungy Torch Club half a block away, playing an oldies jukebox.

Gov. Brown often would end up at Fat’s eating a late meal with the cooks.

Going to Fat’s, remembers former Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco), was “like going to the neighborhood creamery. You’d go for dinner, or maybe just to see what was going on. Wing always had a smile and a laugh.”

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Frank Fat -- who died in 1997 -- and son Wing provided a table-hopping, belly-up-to-the-bar atmosphere where legislators, lobbyists and reporters could meet and bond and learn to trust each other. Reformers today would be aghast, but it worked at the time. This was an era of major legislation on water, healthcare, civil rights, highways, education and taxes. There was much less partisanship and fewer cheap shots. Some historic deals were cooked at Fat’s.

Only Fat’s has survived on the old circuit. Also long gone are such hangouts as Bedell’s, the El Mirador Hotel, Capitol Tamale, the Senator Hotel and Eilish’s (the “final, final” stop).

Fat’s -- now run by Wing’s nephew, Kevin Fat -- has endured because of the hospitality, quality food and periodic major investments in remodeling.

The restaurant still packs them in at lunch, but it’s a different crowd: a mix of lobbyists, locals and tourists. Very few legislators. The dinner clientele is mostly nonpolitical.

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Times have changed: Legislators passed stiff drunken driving laws. Term limits wiped out institutional memory. People began looking for so-called healthier food. Office buildings went up closer to the Capitol, and trendier restaurants opened, mostly impersonal and overpriced.

Also, Gov. Brown cracked down on lobbyists buying legislators meals. It was another reform that went awry. These days, rather than springing for $25 meals, lobbyists routinely kick in $2,500 at legislators’ fundraisers.

And the camaraderie has given way to constant contention and coarseness.

George Skelton writes Monday and Thursday. Reach him at george.skelton@latimes.com.

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