WATSONVILLE—The historic Mansion House in downtown Watsonville is searching for a new, hip tenant.

The New China Buffet permanently closed its doors at the end of 2019 and the Tufo family is looking to fill the 3,800-square-foot space at 420 Main St. with a new trendy restaurant.

“For us, anything works,” said Angelo Tufo, son of longtime Mansion House owner Elena Tufo, “but, ideally, it would be a beer garden or wine place. We feel like that would be a great fit.”

Indeed, the 149-year-old building still has its commercial kitchen and hand-built wooden bar and floors from its renovation just before the turn of the century, when it opened as a high-class eatery under Elena Tufo’s guidance. Its large back patio, which opens up to a parking lot shared with Plaza Vigil and other surrounding businesses, also lends itself to outdoor dining, Tufo said.

Watsonville City Councilman Felipe Hernandez, who oversees downtown, said the location has “great bones,” and that he could see the historic spot as an anchor for the corridor under the right restaurateur. He compared the property to Alvarado Street Brewery & Grill, a happening brewpub in downtown Monterey that repurposed the shuttered Regency Theater a handful of years ago. 

“I walk by it and I see huge potential in a historic place,” Hernandez said. “This place could have all the [beer] taps and the back patio is perfect if it could be open just like [Alvarado Street Brewery & Grill]…It’ll be interesting to see what happens with it.”

New China Buffet opened in the early 2000s and was a hit with the lunch crowd—especially the high schoolers—for its plentiful options and quick service.

Angelo Tufo did not know if the New China Buffet owners would be opening elsewhere.

The phone number listed for the business was disconnected Wednesday.

The Mansion House was designed by architect Thomas Beck—later a state senator and secretary of state—and built for $35,000 in 1871. The 65-room luxury hotel was a staple along the Central Coast, garnering visits from President Ulysses S. Grant, General Tom Thumb and Susan B. Anthony.

The Lettunich family bought the property in 1906 and in 1914 picked up and moved the building 100 feet down Main Street to its current location to make way for the Lettunich Building, which sits at the corner of Main and East Beach Street—then Third Street.

The Mansion House was near collapse before the owners donated the building to the Pajaro Valley Historical Association, who then sold it to Hoffman and Associates for $10 on the condition that it would be restored and recognized as a historical landmark. Roger and Jeff Hoffman poured nearly $2 million into the aging building in the mid-1970s to convert the two upper floors into office spaces and renovate the first floor into a well-equipped restaurant.

That restaurant eventually shuttered and was converted into offices for social services. The Tufo family bought the building in the late ‘90s and once again renovated the bottom floor to house a restaurant, dubbed the Mansion House. But that restaurant, a fine dining destination featuring California cuisine, eventually closed and New China Buffet moved in soon after.

Tufo said there has been a tepid interest in the property over if first few weeks of vacancy.

“It’s been in the family for 30 years,” Tufo said. “We’re excited to see what someone can do with it.”

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