9 Iconic Eateries And Watering Holes In The South Bay
Corned beef and cabbage spaghetti, braised pot roast quesadillas, La La Land’s jazz club, and infamous ‘Fire Chief’ cocktails that will blast your head clean off. All of these can be found in the South Bay, that vast span of southwest L.A. County that ranges from LAX down to San Pedro and inland to Carson.
The South Bay’s been a dynamic region, from the creation of the port of L.A. in the early 1900s to the oil boom of the 20s, thru the aerospace sector in the mid 20th century and the automotive industry in the 70s and 80s. It’s grown with various waves of immigrants from different parts of the world, adding to its culture and local food scene.
And this primarily coastal region has many quirky, old-school restaurants and bars to explore when you’re tired of greater L.A.’s of-the-moment offerings.
Here are 9 iconic South Bay eateries and watering holes that remain as vibrant as ever.
1601 Redondo Beach Boulevard, Gardena
Spoon House’s founder Shin Orio moved from Tokyo to Los Angeles in the mid-1970s, and he quickly noticed that the Japanese restaurants he frequented did not serve his favorite dish from back home: spaghetti.
He decided to take matters into his own hands and fill that pasta-sized void, leaving a successful real estate career behind to open up Spoon House in Gardena in 1984. The casual space is one of the only wafu, or Japanese-style, spaghetti shops in the Los Angeles area. It's been serving more than 30 different globally-inspired spaghetti dishes for the last four decades.
Spoon House’s most popular order is tarako style which features al dente pasta tossed with salted cod roe, butter, and soy sauce (you can also add squid, seaweed, shiso herbs, and kimchi pickles if you really want the full wafu effect). If more traditional spaghetti sounds appealing, go for the Mexicana (salsa plus beef, chicken, or shrimp) or California-style with avocado, sliced cucumber, imitation crab, and light mayo (think California roll-meets-pasta).
For the most adventurous, there’s even an Irish-themed corned beef and cabbage spaghetti that works much better than expected. The lengthy menu also has a section for the noodle-averse crowd, like the $1 mixed greens salad (it’s literally been one dollar for years), hamburger steak dinner, or seafood porridge. Next time you’re in the mood for pasta, stop by this unique Japanese spot in Gardena.
3615 Highland Avenue, Manhattan Beach
Occupying a faded white building under a dated marquee and Spanish tile in the El Porto section of Manhattan Beach, the legendary Pancho’s restaurant continues to draw crowds looking for a meal, drinks, or to pre-game before a night out. What used to be a general store, BBQ spot, and produce stand became Manhattan Beach’s first Mexican restaurant when the Sampson family took over in 1945.
Eccentric entrepreneur Abbott “Abb'' Lawrence then bought the property in 1976, introduced the notorious cartoon caricature logo of Pancho sporting a thick, black mustache and sombrero, and completely remodeled the space to its current state. The interior now resembles a brightly lit, multi-level Mexican hacienda with a lovely tree-lit courtyard, and the kitchen dishes out straightforward Mexican fare.
1138 Highland Avenue, Manhattan Beach
The half-century-old Kettle, and its unmissable black cauldron and neon green “Open All Night” sign, sits in the heart of Manhattan Beach just three short blocks from the ocean. It is the only 24/7 restaurant in the area and serves as the communal dining room and patio for the beach town.
The Kettle is a haven for comfort food, making it the right place to enjoy a weekend brunch or a late-night binge at local dive bars Shellback Tavern or Ercole’s. The go-to’s are the club sandwich, hearty French onion soup, greasy patty melt, or braised pot roast which can be added to a quesadilla or omelet.
Truly any request is doable according to the customizable tri-fold menu (“this is only a guide, please feel free to be creative” is noted at the top), but don’t forget to try a signature warm, crumbly honey-bran muffin…400+ are made daily according to general manager Jeff Byron.
As for the backstory, the restaurant’s original owner Wally Botello was a stakeholder in the Criterion, another diner in downtown Manhattan Beach in the 1960s. Allegedly Wally had a falling out with his Criterion business partner, then took over the Atlantic Richfield gas station property on the corner of Manhattan Beach Boulevard and Highland Avenue, and built and opened the Kettle in late 1973 solely to put the Criterion out of business (sounds like a Curb Your Enthusiasm-style “spite store”).
In 1976, Wally retired to Palm Springs where he eventually opened the legendary Wally’s Desert Turtle restaurant, and sold the Kettle to restaurateur Arthur J. Simms, patriarch of the Simms Restaurant Group that includes notable South Bay institutions like The Arthur J, Simmzy’s, Tin Roof Bistro, Fishing With Dynamite, and MB Post. The Criterion eventually went under while the Kettle remains in the Simms family and has been a landmark ever since.
The Lighthouse Cafe
30 Pier Avenue, Hermosa Beach
The unassuming brick exterior, retro neon sign, and Pancho’s-like marquee are outliers in contrast to the modern beach bars and open-air restaurants on the Hermosa pier, but the ageless Lighthouse Cafe, an integral venue in the 2016 musical film La La Land, has been a jazz club and live music joint for over 70 years.
It opened in 1940 as one of the first bars in downtown Hermosa Beach, and a small stage was added to the staid warehouse-like interior to attract local musicians and ultimately liven up the place. The beachfront club began regularly featuring a jazz brunch in 1949 after band leader Howard Rumsey coaxed original owner John Levine to green light weekly jazz performances every Sunday. The Lighthouse eventually became the South Bay hot spot for West Coast jazz.
Though the brunch food was nothing to write home about, the weekly jam sessions became quite popular amongst jazz fans near and far, and the “Howard Rumsey Lighthouse All-Stars” attracted famous guest musicians like Chet Baker, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis to play in front of a packed Lighthouse crowd.
Shortly after Levine passed away in 1970 and Rumsey moved on to other ventures in 1971, South Bay restaurateur Paul Hennessey took over and handed booking responsibilities to South Bay resident and jazz enthusiast Gloria Cadena who just so happened to be the mother of Dez Cadena, founding member of iconic Hermosa punk band Black Flag.
Although Hennessey reluctantly decided to sell the Lighthouse to a select group of private investors just recently, he was assured that there would be very few changes to the rest of the club (save a badly needed overhaul of the food and beverage options.)
Gloria Cadena still runs the jazz program with performances taking place five to six days a week. Chef Joshua Luce and barman Lee Farrell were brought aboard in 2021 to revamp the food and cocktail programs respectively. The updated menu now features items like a hot chicken sandwich, pimento mac and cheese, cod fish tacos, and a variety of local craft beers. There's also classic and specialty cocktails (try the Hermosa punch, a shaken rum, fruit juice, and pinot grigio concoction that somehow works).
More importantly, the legendary jazz brunch is back in full force after a two-year COVID-enforced pause, so be sure to stop by on a lazy Sunday morning and enjoy some pancakes, avocado toast, a cold-brew infused spark plug cocktail or Bloody Mary, and an up-and-coming jazz trio will be on stage improvising their hearts out.
Tony’s on the Pier
210 Fisherman’s Wharf, Redondo Beach
Whenever a South Bay local references Tony’s, it is typically followed with a chuckle or head shake, mostly due to the after-effects of the nautical-themed restaurant’s famous ‘Fire Chief’ cocktail. Tony’s souped-up version of a Mai Tai adds a 151 floater and grenadine to help it go down easier than it should, but the consolation prize is that the nifty cocktail glasses are complimentary.
According to bartender Frank, he has made upwards of 200 Fire Chiefs in a six-hour shift, and a busy summer Saturday can yield more than 300 Fire Chief orders with the restaurant now at full capacity. A few Fire Chiefs amongst friends, especially during Tony’s nightly sunset countdown tradition, can lead to some interesting nights and rough mornings, and the two-story restaurant has seen plenty of those in its 70 years of existence.
Shortly after returning from World War II, Anthony “Tony” Trutanich opened his namesake spot on the Redondo Beach pier in 1953 as an alternative to spending long, unrewarding days on commercial fishing boats. He fully invested his time and money into the lovingly nicknamed “Old Tony’s” and met his wife there when she applied to be a waitress.
Currently operated by his sons Tony Jr. and Michael, the rickety, multi-level structure could use a facelift, but it still features sweeping, open-air views of the South Bay from the first-floor dining room and even better views and vibes from the upstairs ‘crow’s nest’ lounge.
There is a seafood-heavy food menu as well, and traditionally-prepared options like sand dabs, oysters Rockefeller, and crab Louie along with less common items like smoked salmon chowder or a side of linguine with clam sauce. The best entrée is the cioppino which features a mound of clams, mussels, crab, swordfish, shrimp, and sea bass along with a half-loaf of garlic bread.
Though the food is more than serviceable, patrons don’t typically stop at Tony’s to eat; they’re here for the nightly live music, stunning views, Fire Chiefs, and tiki bar vibe, and you should be too.
The Bull Pen
314 Avenue I, Redondo Beach
There’s something mystical about walking into a vintage L.A. steakhouse. Perhaps it’s because mid-century restaurants are becoming an endangered species in town. Or maybe it’s the anticipation of tucking into a worn vinyl booth, chatting with the long-time barkeep, devouring a juicy steak in a dimly lit dining room, or admiring the antique tchotchkes and signed headshots of Hollywood starlets. Either way, the Bull Pen in Redondo Beach offers all of these things and then some, and it’s been a South Bay relic for over 70 years as a result.
It all started in 1948 when proprietor Cliff Miner opened “King Cole’s Bull Pen” as a burger joint across from Redondo Union High School on PCH, but he and his wife/co-owner Mona decided to change the format after getting meager business from high schoolers.
They shortened the name, moved to a south Redondo strip mall in 1978, and turned the Bull Pen into a full-fledged neighborhood steak and gathering place. Before they both died, Mona and Cliff wanted to give back to the community they grew up in, so they hosted numerous charitable events at the Bull Pen before turning the restaurant over to sons Don and Rod.
The transition was smooth, the convivial spirit remains, and diners still love the largely unchanged meat-and-cocktail menu. You can’t go wrong with the chicken piccata, tri-tip melt or scrumptious burger, but the appropriate order is as follows:
- 12 oz. prime rib medium-rare
- fully loaded baked potato
- house garden salad with light ranch.
Don’t forget about the house cover band that performs Fridays and Saturdays, and be sure to order another martini while enjoying Chicago and Journey tunes…you’re guaranteed to leave happy, tipsy, and quite full.
2107 Pacific Coast Highway, Lomita
Dim sum and dumplings are never a bad idea, and there are thankfully dozens of places to go in greater Los Angeles when the mood for Chinese food strikes. Most folks stick to the tried-and-true eateries in the San Gabriel Valley or downtown L.A.’s Chinatown, but Lomita also has an under-the-radar collection of Chinese restaurants.
The South Bay Chinese food renaissance all started with Szechwan restaurant, the area’s first dim sum and seafood specialty spot opened by chef/owner Andy Kao in 1980. Chef Andy originally emigrated to Southern California in the mid-1900s, cut his teeth working in the kitchen at a few Chinese restaurants in Monterey Park, and he decided to open his own place after seeing numerous friends and family move to the rapidly growing South Bay in the 1970s.
The Lomita restaurant is housed in a nondescript beige building on an industrial section of PCH, sporting an unmissable red sign, green awnings, multiple live fish tanks, and the fun, old-school push cart dim sum service. The carts only roll around during lunch hours nowadays, but they are still quite popular with selections ranging from savory turnip cakes and BBQ pork buns on the low end to pork siu mai dumplings and beef tripe on the high end.
There is also an expectedly lengthy dinner menu which ballooned up to nearly 300 items several years ago but has been pared down to a less overwhelming 150ish for now. A variety of soups, noodle dishes, beef, poultry, pork, and seafood are all available so even the pickiest eater can find something appealing. To make the decision-making process a little easier, start with the dim sum sampler that includes pork, shrimp and scallop dumplings, or the pu pu appetizer platter which includes wontons, egg rolls, BBQ beef, rice paper wrapped chicken, BBQ ribs, and fried shrimp. Cap the meal off with the fun “seafood in noodle basket” specialty entrée, a smorgasbord of scallops, shrimp, fresh squid, fish, and veggies sautéed and then served in a ‘basket’ of crispy noodles.
There will probably be leftovers, but be sure to snag either the red bean balls or egg custard for dessert before heading out the door.
Rolling Hills Estates
The Original Red Onion
736 Bart Earle Way, Rolling Hills Estates
The Red Onion’s quaint Southwestern motif features tumbleweeds, cactus, and even swinging saloon doors. The six-decade young Mexican restaurant sits in a Spanish-tiled adobe building in the heart of the Rolling Hills countryside surrounded by trails, stables, and ranch-style homes, and it’s not uncommon for horseback riders to clip-clop down to the small main drag for a meal and cocktail.
When the Rolling Hills location first opened in 1963, it was actually the third Red Onion that Bart Earle and his father Harry started after Inglewood (1949) and Hawthorne (1958). The Earle family eventually expanded the franchise to as many as 26 locations across the Southland as demand for Mexican-American fare grew, especially with the popularity of places like Casa Vega in the San Fernando Valley and El Cholo in greater Los Angeles.
However, family legal issues, over-extension, noise complaints, and rent increases caused 25 of the 26 restaurants to close, and Bart’s son Jeff Earle is the proprietor tasked with keeping the final (or ‘original’ as the Earles now refer to it) restaurant afloat on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
Since Jeff and his staff are operating one of the only Mexican restaurants in the area, they have enjoyed a long run of success by serving moderately-priced, well-executed classics (think tamales, tacos, and enchiladas with lots of masa and carne) in the rustic dining room and courtyard.
Most of the menu’s recipes were created by Jeff’s great-grandmother and Sonoran native Catalina Earle in the early 1900s. Stand-out entrees include the Chicken Santa Fe (chicken breast stuffed with sauteed mushrooms and topped with a large Ortega pepper) along with the Steak Zapata which is filet mignon simmered with roasted peppers and mushrooms.
The bar program offers Mexican beer, a variety of wines, and a few signature cocktails, including the sweet, tart Paloma with Squirt or the deliciously spicy jalapeño Mezcal Margarita. When in the mood for large portions of home-style Mexican food complemented by endless chips and salsa, stop by the timeless Red Onion for an affordable, enjoyable meal, and the very real possibility of seeing a horse strut through the front door (this does happen from time to time).
J. Trani’s Ristorante
584 W. 9th Street, San Pedro
Graduations, anniversaries, rehearsal dinners, or date nights…whatever the occasion, the family-operated J. Trani’s Ristorante in San Pedro is the place to go. Perhaps it’s the murals of the Italian countryside, flowing wine, lively dining room, antique chandeliers, baskets of warm garlic bread, or dual brick chimneys — this place just looks and feels like home and has been a gracious South Bay host for decades.
Originally opened in 1925 as the Majestic Café by Filippo Trani after he emigrated from central Italy, J. Trani’s has been serving coastal Italian fare in downtown San Pedro for almost 100 years. The name and location have changed slightly over the years, but the restaurant’s vibrant Italian spirit has been kept alive by the Trani family for four generations (the J. stands for Filippo’s son Jim who began helping his father in the late 1930s).
Head chef Dustin Trani is the great-grandson of Filippo, and his kitchen’s motto is “keep it simple, stupid.” That theme is strongly conveyed in favorites like the excellent grilled calamari, spaghetti, and jumbo meatballs, or the savory chicken marsala, all of which can be shared family-style. Dustin does push the envelope on a few specials though like the unique and popular caramelized pear pizza along with the roasted maple leaf duck gnocchi. Adventurous or safe orders aside, be sure to save room for the blueberry almond panna cotta for dessert…it’s the perfect nightcap for a festive evening with family and friends.