Jardine: Sad state of Modesto’s Sundial

09/21/2013 4:41 PM

10/28/2013 9:26 PM

You’ll have a difficult time finding anyone who has lived in Modesto pre-1998 and doesn’t remember the old Sundial Restaurant and Lodge fondly.

It became a senior care facility after the Galas family closed its restaurant and lodge that year, and today it’s hard to find anyone who has much good to say about the current management. That includes the state Department of Health Services, which in May slapped the ownership with a list of violations, including one that never would have happened when the Galas family owned the place: not enough food.

This is one of those stories that is sad and infuriating. The seniors deserve quality care, beginning with nutrition. Their families need to know their loved ones are, indeed, getting that care. Instead, an employee said, management cut their hourly pay by $1 upon taking over 23 months ago, and understaffing is commonplace. Some seniors fear having to move, with no family around to help them.

Wednesday night’s dinner, I’m told, consisted of two ravioli and some spinach per person, and a resident told Bee reporter Erin Tracy that the place frequently runs out of bread and other foodstuffs.

It’s the Sundial in name only, compared with when the Galas family ran it as a hotel and restaurant.

In 1946, Gus and Nora Galas opened a restaurant inside the old Hotel Covell downtown. It became wildly popular, and their clientele included Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland and Emperor Haile Selassie. After George Covell died in 1955, his wife, Grace, built the lodge and restaurant out on McHenry Avenue, naming it the Sundial, after the sundial in her garden.

Over the next 40-plus years, it became one of Modesto’s most popular places.

“Modesto will never, ever have a place like this again,” Stu Kurland told The Bee in 1998. “This was more than a restaurant. It was a clubhouse. It was an institution. It was the first place I drove to from college in UCLA, because there was a 90 percent chance my parents would be here.”

Everyone, it seemed, had a fond memory or good story about the place. Mine came in early 1993. Still in sports and covering baseball at the time, I had been at Candlestick Park a few years earlier on the Saturday when former pitcher Vida Blue was married at the pitcher’s mound.

A few weeks after their big day, all of the media who covered the game that day received thank-you cards from Mr. and Mrs. Blue. I jokingly scribbled “Dear Jeff, thanks for the toaster, love, Vida and Peg” on it, and taped it above my desk.

When Vida came to Modesto for a speaking engagement at the Sundial in 1993, I went over to interview him beforehand. During the course of our chat, I mentioned that I’d been at the Stick on his wedding day.

Without missing a beat, he said, “Where’s my toaster?”

The Sundial is where Dan Costa learned the restaurant business before creating his own business empire that included the Velvet Creamery and Mallard’s restaurants.

“I learned from an absolute master. I learned not just about cooking, but about life,” Costa said in a 1998 Bee story. “At the Sundial, I learned to use all my senses as a chef. It was a great experience. I should have been paying the Galases to work there. They were like family to me.”

It’s where business deals were consummated, where cattle were bought and sold, and where families celebrated everything from engagements to wakes.

Sons Stan and Norman Galas, who ran the restaurant and lodge for decades after their parents stepped away, decided to close it in 1998.

Two years later, and after an $8.5 million makeover, it reopened as a senior community. It’s changed hands a few times since, including after a foreclosure in 2005. The current proprietor, Alliance Health Services LLC, took over the operation in October 2011.

A few years ago, I spent a couple of hours visiting with a 102-year-old woman named Vadis Walters. She lived in the Sundial and spoke highly of it, especially since she and her husband called a chicken coop home in Oklahoma after they were married in 1925.

Her secret to a long life – she died a year later, on her 103rd birthday – was a sense of humor and a healthy appetite.

“We didn't have any money,” she told me. “But we always had plenty to eat – as you can tell by looking at me.”

Sadly, it seems, current Sundial residents can’t say the same.

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