While there is no official recognition for the worst-looking restaurant in town, Jamie’s Broadway Grille was a likely favorite to claim the title. There’s no sign out front. The paint has been peeling for years. The shingles are old and worn, the wood weathered beyond rejuvenation.
But for decades, scores of people looked past all that, insisting it was one of the city’s greatest restaurants.
They came for the food — robust, perfectly seasoned and cooked from scratch —and many believed that owner and chef Jamie Bunnell was no less than a maestro in the kitchen. They loved his garlic steak sandwich made with filet mignon. They raved about his smoked prime rib, probably unaware that the man himself was there at 4:30 a.m. to get it started. They adored his mixed seafood grill made with an exquisite scampi sauce that knew no shortcuts.
Over the weekend, news began to trickle out on Facebook that Bunnell, 58, had died. His widow, Vicki, confirmed Monday that he died on Friday, just weeks after learning he had brain cancer.
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“He wanted to fill people with happiness with his food,” she said. “The man was brilliant. Nobody could do what he did at 5th and Broadway for 30 years and come out so well respected.”
Indeed, Bunnell and his restaurant had become legendary over the decades. Jamie’s had scores of regulars, including the partners at the law firm Harrison, Temblador, Hungerford & Johnson.
“We actually formed our firm, laid out the business plan and shook hands in the Jamie’s dining room,” said Mark D. Harrison, who has eaten lunch at Jamie’s three times a week for years. “It’s the nerve center of our law firm. Just the people he put together there, you felt like you were going into a sanctuary. He was a wizard with meat and he exalted substance over style.
“The idea that the chef and the owner is back there making the pastrami and smoking the prime rib, it showed in every plate. It’s the utter lack of pretense that drew all of us to it.”
On the day after the restaurant’s annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration, Bunnell learned he had a brain tumor and that there was no treating it.
“He took the news about his death coming very gracefully, but the idea of him not being able to go back to Jamie’s was very frustrating to him,” Vicki Bunnell said.
In addition to the quality of the food, the restaurant was beloved for the lively interaction between longtime employees and devoted regulars. Folks got engaged at Jamie’s. They did deals at Jamie’s. Many considered the staff like family.
Mallory Nowak, who worked as a server for six years before moving to Portland 18 months ago, still takes shifts when she’s in town.
“It’s very nostalgic. It’s my family,” she said.
Jamie Bunnell, she said, was a behind-the-scenes kind of guy who lived to create and cook.
“He was the most dedicated and passionate chef and person I have ever talked to about food in general,” said Nowak, who studied nutrition at Sacramento State University. “I could talk to him about food every day and he would never get tired of it. It was just so obvious that he loved his craft and he was awesome at it.”
In the tiny, cramped kitchen, Bunnell would toil for hours on end, even after the restaurant had become a big hit and the place was packed day and night. Scores of new customers started showing up in recent years after Jamie’s was featured on Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” on the Food Network. Bunnell never stepped away from cooking and never cut back on the those impossibly early morning shifts.
Cindy Boc who worked in the kitchen with Bunnell for 21 years, described him as a kindhearted boss who liked to crack jokes and put the employees at ease. She saw his devotion to cooking firsthand.
“He made the best prime rib. He used something like 15 different seasonings and got here at 4:30 in the morning to start it,” she said.
In recent weeks, she noticed Bunnell was struggling to read the order tickets in the kitchen and she sensed something was wrong. She urged him to see a doctor. The bleak diagnosis was a major jolt, but Boc, along with another longtime cook, Pao Sao, have vowed to carry on Jamie’s legacy.
“All those customers out there, I just can’t leave them. I want to make the customers happy,” she said.
Vicki Bunnell said she and the staff are committed to keeping Jamie’s as it is and honoring the man who made it a Sacramento institution.
“I want to keep accomplishing what Jamie has already accomplished,” she said.
On Monday, Harrison and his law partners toasted Bunnell with a shot of whiskey in the law firm conference room. They’ve pledged to keep going back to their beloved eatery.
“It’s saddening, devastating. We feel very badly for everyone,” Harrison said. “We’re confident that with the people he has in place, Jamie’s spirit will live on.”