Biz Beat

Will Minnie’s stop serving food? Future of iconic spot’s kitchen unclear

Johnna Hill, left, enjoys lunch with other patrons at Minnie’s Bar and Restaurant in Modesto, Calif., on Friday, Oct. 12, 2018.
Johnna Hill, left, enjoys lunch with other patrons at Minnie’s Bar and Restaurant in Modesto, Calif., on Friday, Oct. 12, 2018.

Your potstickers are safe for at least a little longer, Modesto.

Minnie’s restaurant and bar, which was bought by a new owner at the beginning of the year, will keep its kitchen open until the end of the year. After that, it remains to be seen whether the iconic tiki-themed establishment, which has been a go-to Chinese spot in town for more than 60 years, will continue to serve food.

Brian Aranda, the business development manager for new owner Splash Bar Inc., said the kitchen will close at the start of the year for “some much needed remodeling.” He said a recent health department inspection indicated the kitchen floor needed to be replaced, along with some equipment.

“But only time will tell whether (the kitchen) will reopen,” he said.

Minnie’s opened just off Modesto’s busy Five Points intersection on McHenry Avenue in 1955. It was one of the city’s longest-running family run restaurants until the end of last year, when owner Stuart Mah retired. In 1962, the Mah family purchased Minnie’s from its original owners, Hop Louie and his wife Minnie Woo — the restaurant’s namesake.

Sacramento-based Splash Bar Inc. owns a series of LGBTQ-themed clubs, including Badlands in Sacramento and Splash Bar in San Jose and Reno. It is also in the process of opening a Badlands in Portland and another Splash Bar in Fresno.

But Aranda said there are no plans to turn Minnie’s into an LGBTQ nightclub. Instead, they want it to be a welcoming place for everyone — regulars and new customers alike. Minnie’s is the only one of Splash Bar Inc.’s properties that has a kitchen and serves food.

“It’s for everyone; it’s not a certain demographic. We have bars that cater to LGBT, but Minnie’s, we’d like it to be more of an all-inclusive bar,” Aranda said. “We really appreciate the support and we feel the love. And that’s why we hesitated in changing the venue. Moving forward, we want to keep a lot of the same characteristics. We have no plans to remove the historic bar inside and the memorabilia on the wall. We’re trying to introduce some new things because it’s in need of some remodeling.”

One of those new things will be dancing on the weekends from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., beginning Halloween weekend. Aranda said tables and chairs will be moved out of the main indoor dining room to create a dance floor and there will be DJs spinning music and $2 tacos served on the patio.

Since purchasing the place, Splash Bar Inc. has maintained the same restaurant, bar and kitchen staff — many who have been working there for well over 20 years. They’ve also kept up much of the establishment’s eclectic decor, which includes black velvet nude paintings of Polynesian women and decrepit dollar bills stapled to the walls and ceiling.

Rumors about Minnie’s closing its kitchen as early as the end of this month swirled this week. Many lamented the end of an era. The bar is known for its strong drinks, including its signature blended rum cocktail called the “jerk,” which patrons then sop up with a plate of their much beloved potstickers or other Chinese food favorite.

On Friday afternoon, the bar was filled with people eating a late lunch. More than two decades ago, to make dining easier for the barstool set, a customer crafted special wooden serving trays to fit over the bar’s raised lip. The bar uses them to this day.

“This place has been an icon of Modesto,” said Modesto resident Jill Tunkel, who came with her sister Jane Scarmazzo to split a lunch of potstickers. The two have been coming to Minnie’s for close to 40 years, since they moved to Modesto.

“There’s no turning off those stoves,” Scarmazzo chimed in.

When the restaurant celebrated its grand opening March 29, 1955, ads placed in The Modesto Bee heralded its “Chinese and American foods of distinction.” It remains one of the city’s longest continually operating Chinese food establishments. Its large, bamboo-thatched patio has hosted countless private parties, business meetings and even weddings all catered by the kitchen.

Modesto resident Dashaun Winston has been going to Minnie’s for the last dozen years, since he moved to town. He stopped by for a lunch of potstickers and barbecue pork.

“It think it’s a travesty if they get rid of the food,” he said. “To buy this place and get rid of the food? I think that’s a bad investment.”

Aranda said whether the food will return in the new year is largely up to patrons.

“If business allows the kitchen to stay open, by all means it should stay open. It’s kind of all in their hands. Without the community’s support, we cannot keep it open,” he said.

Marijke Rowland: 209-578-2284, @marijkerowland