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The Sun Café: from corpses to cantina

Posted: November 3rd, 2017 | Columnists, Featured, Gaslamp Landmarks | No Comments

By Sandee Wilhoit

The early history of Lot A/Block 082/95, where the Sun Cafe currently sits, is a most circuitous one. On March 18, 1869, Alonzo Horton sold the property to Mary C. Smith, who promptly sold it to E.P. Figg, who then returned it to Mrs. Smith, who resold it to Mr. Horton.

Mr. Horton then relinquished his interest in the property to William S. McNealy and James McCoy on Nov. 11, 1872, for $1,000 in gold coin. Both of these gentlemen were very active in early San Diego civic and business affairs.

The Sun Cafe, 421 Market St., 1873-1883 (Courtesy GQHF)

McNealy was a district attorney and the youngest man, at age 25, to hold the office of judge. McCoy was a sheriff and state senator. He was also the founder of a newspaper, The Daily World.

These gentlemen divided their lot, giving the east half of the lot to John N. Young, an undertaker. The 1886-1887 city directory lists his specialty as embalming and states that he also prepared bodies for shipping. He was also the city coroner.

A very versatile individual, Mr. Young was additionally involved in furniture sales, carpentry and the building of the Young Block on Fifth Avenue and F Street. His other activities included firefighting, public administration and a stint as superintendent of cemetery grounds.

Mr. Young is the party responsible for the structure we now know as the Sun Cafe.

As the building was built between 1873-1883, it is thus one of the oldest buildings in the Gaslamp. The 1883 Sanborn fire map indicates a one-story brick structure on the site and notes that it was an undertaking establishment.

The 1887 map also designates the building as an undertaker’s. In 1888, Mr. Young partnered with John Gray to establish a “fine handmade furniture and fine handmade coffins” store in what is now the historic Marin Hotel, at 552 Fifth Ave. The building on Market Street then became the funeral parlor and the undertaking was performed in the basement of the Marin Hotel building.

Mr. Young died in 1897 and the Sun Cafe building was purchased from the estate by Mrs. Sophia Remondino, wife of Dr. Peter Remondino, a physician who was said to own one of the finest medical libraries in California. Dr. Remondino also owned the St. James Hotel at 830 Sixth Ave.

In 1914, Joseph U. (Uichiro) Obayashi and his wife, Suye, opened a shooting gallery and confectionary at the site. Mr. Obayashi occasionally sold soup in the shooting gallery, which was so well received that in 1926, he converted the shooting gallery into a restaurant, called the Sun Cafe.

In 1925, Obayashi had the structure “remodeled and repaired,” and the Obayashi family said that it was the original structure with a new facelift. The actual sale of the property was recorded as a transaction between Florence F. Obayashi and the Bank of America for $3,500.

During WWII, over 2,000 Japanese were removed to the Posten Internment Camp, and the Obayashi family was part of this group. In their absence, a Greek family ran the cafe.

When the Obayashis returned from Posten, Al Obayashi, the father of long-time Davis-Horton House volunteer, Jon Obayashi, reopened the Sun Cafe in 1949. He then decided to expand his horizons, and opened a Japanese/Chinese restaurant on Fourth Avenue in what is now the La Puerta restaurant. It was extremely popular, as American GIs, home from the war, craved the exotic Asian cuisine they had enjoyed abroad. The restaurant proved so popular that Al had to move it to a larger location on Pacific Highway.

After Al Obayashi started his new venture, the cafe was sold to the Jeongs, a Chinese family, who continued to operate the Sun Cafe for 46 years. Nui and Ming Jeong finally closed the doors of this San Diego icon on Dec. 31, 2008.

However, after a family reunion in 2009, 15 Obayashis gathered in front of the Sun Cafe for one last photograph.

On Thursday, June 25, 2015, Asian Story Theater premiered “Stories of the Sun Cafe,” a dramatized recollection of community leaders and real people who lived, worked and ate at this iconic cafe. It was held at the Lyceum Theater to a very enthusiastic crowd.

The Sun Cafe site is now the home of Funky Garcia’s at the Sun Cafe, a Mexican restaurant. However, the historic sign above the door still shines brightly reminding us of the past when the Sun Cafe was the hub of Japanese and Chinese life in Downtown San Diego.

— Sandee Wilhoit is the historian for the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation. She can be reached at swilhoit@gaslampfoundation.org.

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