Los Angeles Times Newspaper
Frank Fat, Capital Restaurateur, Dies
April 7, 1997 – 12AM
From Times Staff and Wire Reports
SACRAMENTO — Frank Fat, the legendary restaurateur April whose watering hole a block from the Capitol has been the scene of political intrigue and revelry for nearly six decades, died Saturday. He was 92.
Fat, a Chinese immigrant who for years washed dishes to earn a living, opened the restaurant in 1939 in a former speak-easy on Sacramento’s skid row. Friends thought the restaurant would fold, but it quickly became a Sacramento institution.
“Everybody told him it would be no good, but his friends from the Capitol encouraged him and followed him. He had a wonderful relationship with legislators,” said Marcus McGee, manager at Frank Fat’s.
“He was a very charming individual and he had a lot of personality, and a whole lot of people from the Capitol were always here,” McGee said.
Over the years, the restaurant hosted a nightly crowd of lawmakers, lobbyists, bureaucrats and assorted hangers-on, and the restaurant developed a well-deserved reputation as a place where political deals were cut in smoke-filled rooms.
In 1987, a reporter who ate there on a weeknight saw the governor, the lieutenant governor, the speaker of the Assembly, the president of the Senate, the minority leaders of both houses and a former governor. The bar was jammed with lobbyists.
A former legislator once remarked that “some of the best laws in the state of California were born, nurtured, lobbied and actually passed right here in this restaurant. Frank’s mother taught him that people like nothing more than hearing their own names.”
At an eatery that became known as “the third house” of the state Legislature, one dinner in particular became the stuff of political legend.
That came in 1987 when well-heeled politicians, lawyers and lobbyists dined at Fat’s to hash out a way of protecting tobacco companies from legal liability, jotting down the details on a linen napkin. The legislation that resulted became known as “the napkin bill,” and even as critics denounced the episode as back-room politicking at its worst, the Fat family proudly displayed a blown-up copy of the napkin on the watering hole wall.
At a dinner upstairs at Frank Fat’s in 1995, Gov. Pete Wilson asked former White House aide Craig Fuller to run his ill-fated presidential campaign. A few years before that, Willie Brown took the entire Assembly to dinner there during an impasse over budget negotiations.
The restaurant closed down temporarily in 1984 for a 1 million dollar remodeling job, leaving politicos craving a Fat-style steak for nine months. It was Los Angeles interior designer Anthony Machado who brought silk tapestries, a gold-flaked Buddha, intricate carvings and other fineries to what had been a somewhat dowdy landmark.
The reopening came in the grandest of style, as Fat threw an invitation-only block party that drew 3,000 luminaries. The Fat family assured everyone that the gala – replete with Chinese lion dancers, eight temporary bars and tables for 28,000 hors d’oeuvres – was the largest private party ever held in Sacramento.
Fat was born on May 12, 1904, in China and later came to California, where he worked in restaurants as a dishwasher, waiter and manager.
During the 1930s, he managed another Sacramento culinary landmark, the Hong King Lum restaurant, before opening his own eatery. He would offer 35-cent lunches and free gardenias to ladies on Friday nights.
Fat’s son, Wing Fat, also was in the restaurant business for years, and his grandson, Weyland Fat, now runs the establishment.