Revisiting the Legacy of Sam’s Seafood, Sunset Beach’s Original Polynesian Palace

Photo by Chris Jepsen

The buildings that have stood at what’s now 16278 Pacific Coast Highway in Sunset Beach or Surfside (call it what you want, just don’t DARE call it Huntington Beach around a local) have weathered their fair share of storms over the years. They’ve endured the tradewinds of new development, a flaming inferno and even Hurricane Hamby after I’ve had one mai tai too many.

For the past decade, that address has been the home of Don the Beachcomber restaurant and Dagger Bar, but more memorably, it was the location of Sam’s Seafood restaurant for more than half a century before that.

Starting in 1923, Sam’s Seafood was a staple of Southern California beachfront dining. What began as a bait shop opened by Greek-immigrant brothers Sam and George Arvanitis in Seal Beach evolved into a fish market, then full-fledged Art Deco-era destination restaurant by the 1940s. The Independent Press-Telegram in Long Beach recalled in a Christmas Day 1975 article, “Sam’s first gained famed [sic] as a seafood restaurant back in the 1920s and ’30s because of the quality of its swordfish.”

The restaurant proudly boasted the superiority of its swordfish with a Moby Dick-sized, blue swordfish sign on the roof of the building. That symbol soon became iconic, appearing on matchbooks and post cards with sayings such as “Dine at the Sign of the Swordfish.” The belly of the fish held the various incarnations of the restaurant’s name—be it Sam’s Seafood Spa, Sam’s Seafood Grotto, Sam’s Sea Foods or just plain Sam’s—painted or later spelled out in neon.

By the 1950s, the Deco movement was passe, and Southern California had Googie fever. Named after the Los Angeles diner, the bold, modern style was highly influenced by the Space Age and overtook the look of restaurants of the day. Sam’s Seafood was no exception and remodeled the eatery to something fit for the Atomic Age. The rooftop swordfish was joined by a giant standing neon sign out front, complete with bitchin’ boomerang.

At 3 a.m. on Feb. 17, 1959, a fire burned Sam’s Seafood to the ground. Forced to rebuild, then-owners Ruth, Nick and Dick Katsaris glommed on to a different midcentury fad sweeping Southern California: tiki! In 1960, they invested $1 million and hired architect Don Davis to design the new, new face of Sam’s and introduced Surfside to “Sam’s Seafood and Hawaiian Village.” A matchbook from the era exclaims, “Dine in any of our new South Seas Rooms. . . . You’ll be overwhelmed by their tropical splendor!”

It was this incarnation of Sam’s that fostered some of the most legendary tales: Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were said to have dined there. An old photo shows surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku holding a large trophy beside members of the Katsaris family, with everyone decked out in aloha shirts. A black-and-white photo of Bradley Nowell and, more important perhaps, his dalmatian Lou Dog places the Sublime front man and former Surfside resident as performing at Sam’s just a year before his death.

In 1974, Sam’s Seafood expanded south, opening a second location in Corona del Mar, ironically taking over the only official Don the Beachcomber location in Orange County after it shuttered that same year.

Because history has a sick sense of humor, the same thing, but opposite, would happen 30 years later. Online reviews from the early 2000s painted Sam’s Seafood as a shell of its former glory. By the middle of that decade, Sam’s had traded hands a handful of times, even closing for a year in 2006. The place was reopened under the name Kona for a second in 2007; I’ve had hangovers that have lasted longer!

In March 2008, threats of demolishing the building to make way for apartments arose but were eventually fended off. Since then, various scares of closing and razing of the historic building have come up every few years like bad cases of botulism.

Controversial former Los Angeles City Councilman Art Snyder and his wife, Delia, rebranded the spot as the Don the Beachcomber in 2009. This restaurant had little to do with the original in Hollywood from the 1930s, arguably the first tiki restaurant and birthplace of some of the genre’s most iconic cocktails. Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt (a.k.a. Donn Beach-Comber, alias Donn Beachcomber, legally named Donn Beach) had been 6 feet under the sands of Honolulu for 19 years by the time the Don’s in Sunset opened its doors.

According to a recent article in Los Angeles Magazine, Delia knew Donn Beach, who was a friend of her father’s, and she claims he taught her some of his secret tiki cocktail recipes. The Snyders purchased the rights to the Don the Beachcomber name from Gantt’s ex-wife, Cora Irene “Sunny” Sund, who was the real brains behind the business and responsible for turning the restaurant into the multilocation, midcentury phenomenon it became. United States Patent and Trademark documents show Snyder’s company, Marisol LLC, registered “Don the Beachcomber” as a trademark in 2005.

The Snyders worked hard to restore the location to its former tiki-tastic glory, bringing in royalty such as Bamboo Ben to decorate after years of misguided management left the place looking more Hobby Lobby than the authentic midcentury Polynesian pop relic it was.

In 2015, the volcano of redevelopment started rumbling again with news that the land surrounding Don the Beachcomber was being labeled an “opportunity zone” and recommended for rezoning to become high-density apartments. Tiki-heads, history nerds and rummies gathered their tiki torches and stormed the Huntington Beach City Council to oppose the decision, and in July of that year, the city announced the area “will not be evaluated by the city for other potential land uses, to include residential,” according to a press release.

It was noted, however, “while the city will not take further action on these two sites, it is important to note that the owners of both properties [Don’s and Peter’s Landing] have previously expressed interest in redeveloping.” The announcement went on to say redevelopment could still occur, but that would be up to the owners, not Huntington Beach, and the public would be notified before shit went down. The tiki gods were pleased.

Don the Beachcomber again started making waves this March with the announcement of a two-night stand of shows celebrating its 10-year anniversary at the historic compound. Though it was officially billed as the Ohana Fest, rumors on social media quickly started, saying the shows would actually mark the last nights of the Polynesian paradise.

The rumors of the restaurant and bar’s closing were sparked by cryptic and nostalgic posts on the Instagram account of the Hula Girls, a local “hulabilly” band and Dagger Bar mainstay, as well as the curious move of reggae legend Fully Fullwood’s Sunday residency to the Broken Drum in Long Beach and several concerts after March 31 relocated to Original Mike’s in Santa Ana.

The music festival sold out, with tikiphiles coming to pay homage to the largest, semi-original Polynesian restaurant in Orange County for what could be the last time. Décor slowly disappeared from the walls, but whether that was by design or from premature grave-robbing is unclear. There was a somber tone in the air as bands waxed poetic from the stage about the legacy of the building and the owners’ plans to move the luau somewhere else.

As of press time, Don the Beachcomber has made no official statement on the state of the business. According to comments on its Instagram page, Don’s will be open “regular business hours” this week. So go while you can, before the next wave of redevelopment hits the shores of “small town” Sunset Beach and turns it into another Pacific Shitty.