A week and a half ago, it was announced on Dos Burritos‘ Facebook page that the Mendez Family had made the difficult decision to close the last location of their restaurant, which was once part of a small, local chain. Dos Burritos was founded in 1977 and, at its peak, there were locations in Downtown Hollywood, East Los Angeles, Little Armenia, Van Nuys, and possibly elsewhere. I ate there many times when I worked at Amoeba Music. To be honest, there were places that I preferred but it was affordable and located near my work. It was also unfussy, unpretentious, unremarkable, and utterly unconcerned with attracting authenticity-obsessed foodies. Just as empires inevitably rise and fall, so, too, do restaurant chains, I suppose. Granted, although I might not be tempted to recite Shelley‘s “Ozymandias,” whenever the last location of a chain (or anything, really) closes, it does often provoke in me an unexpected nostalgia and sadness.
Los Angeles has been home to many chain restaurant empires that collapsed before I ever had the chance to dine at them. The Brown Derby is surely one of the most famous and when I moved to Los Angeles lived in, in a fashion, as the Derby nightclub in Los Feliz. One location of the long-defunct Cooper Do-Nuts was the site of what has often been characterized as the first trans riot (seven years before San Francisco‘s more celebrated Compton’s Cafeteria Riot). Coffee shop chain Ships Coffee Shop is remembered for its Googie architecture — the name of which comes from the non-chain Googie’s Coffee Shop. I remember a location of a chain I’d never heard of, Velvet Turtle, sitting abandoned in Chinatown for years with just its sign to identify it. Whilst researching a piece about converted train car restaurants, I learned of a defunct train station-themed chain, Victoria Station. One chain that I did love was Curry House, which closed all locations in February 2020. Trying to think of more defunct chains, I turned to my friend, Mike, a native Angeleno, and asked if there were any that he missed. After a few moments, he said “Pup ‘n’ Taco.”
Restaurant chains fall for a variety of reasons. Many are victims of bad business decisions. Some are victims of infighting between business partners — especially, it seems, when those partners are related to one another. Some are taken over by other countries and shut down. Many of them struggle against rising competition and changing tastes. Once they’re gone, they almost never come back. Almost, I write, because there are now three locations of Naugles. Naugles, founded in 1970, went defunct when it was taken over by Del Taco in 1997. At its peak, there were more than 200 locations. The chain was revived in 2015 after years of effort.
When I first came up with Fastfood Undead, my intention was to highlight and visit former fast food chains that had been taken over by (usually superior) stand-alone restaurants. I thought for this piece, however, that it would be fun to look at restaurants that used to be part of a chain but are now stand-alone because all of the other locations have closed. For me, a chain requires there to have been at least three locations in operation at the same time at some point. And for the purposes of this list — there can only be one left in the world — not just Los Angeles.
There are some restaurants that don’t quite fit this bill. Jim’s Burgers is no longer a chain — but there are still numerous former locations of the chain that retain the defunct chain’s name and operate independently of one another. I think that something similar is true of both Dino’s and Bagel Nosh. Other suggestions that appeared on my Twitter thread revealed that there are still two locations open, including Conrad’s (Glendale and La Cañada Flintridge), Dinah’s (Glendale and Westchester — although both are independent), Du-Par’s (Fairfax and Las Vegas — probably independent), House of Pies (Los Feliz and Houston — both independent), Pioneer Chicken (Bell Gardens and Boyle Heights). Yet more suggestions that are excluded include Chicken Delight (six locations in the US, twenty in Canada), Donahoo’s (three locations), El Taco (four locations), Sambo’s (only one left but none in Los Angeles County and no longer known as Sambo’s), and Yuca’s (never more than two locations, I don’t believe).
As always, additions and corrections are appreciated!
Burrito King‘s origins are surprisingly obscure. Little has been written about the former chain. The claim is usually made, though, that Burrito King was founded by Julian E. Montoya, when he was working as a loan officer and bought it from one of his customers. Surely, though, that customer — whose name is never recounted — was the actual founder. You can’t even co-found a company that you weren’t part of when it was founded (unless you’re Elon Musk and the company is Tesla). Montoya was an immigrant from Colombia who’d previously lived in Miami and Memphis — none of which were exactly the heart of burrito-land. In fact, Montoya claimed to have only been introduced to the burrito when he joined the Navy and was stationed in San Diego.
Burrito King already existed, then, in 1968, when Montoya bought the stand and kept its name. It can’t have been around for too long, though. In 1961, the building was listed as being for sale and was advertised as a “pizza, taco, and hamburger stand.”. In 1962, Birte Anderson was charged with operating a fictitious business, Birte’s Burgers, there. Governor Jerry Brown claimed, though, that Burrito King had been his favorite restaurant in 1967, when he lived in Los Angeles. So it seems, Burrito King was founded sometime between 1962 and ’67. The claim is sometimes made that it was the city’s first burrito stand. One might reasonably assume that the restaurateur responsible for popularizing the burrito in Los Angeles would more likely have roots in Juárez or El Paso than Bogotá. It was under Montoya’s stewardship, however, that Burrito King thrived. By 1984, there were twenty locations (including in Bogotá) and Montoya was a senior official of the Los Angeles Olympics. Montoya also opened a fancy Mexican place, Caché, that was popular with slebs and toffs.
There were setbacks for the chain and its owner, though. Montoya refused to franchise so former employees established a rival chain, Los Burritos (of which there are currently three locations) in 1974. I wonder if Dos Burritos also has connections to the chain. The Montoyas’ house was destroyed in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. Montoya rebuffed Pepsi when they approached him about buying the chain. By the 2000s, the Montoyas were living in a small home behind the Los Feliz location. That location, the second to last in operation, closed in 2011 and became Mixto. Today, the only location still standing is the original location, which was taken over by Glenda Zepeda in 2019.
The last Burrito King is served by Metro‘s 2, 4, and 603 lines.
The last location of Clifton’s has operated — somewhat shakily in recent years — in the Broadway Theater District since 1935. At its peak, there were eight locations of the cafeteria chain. It was founded by Clifford Clinton, who created the restaurant’s name by combining his given and family names. His family had a fairly long track record in the restaurant business. Clinton’s parents, Edmond and Gertrude, co-owned a chain in San Francisco called Dennets. His grandfather, David Harrison Clinton, had operated the dining room at the Southern Hotel in Los Angeles.
The first location, Clifton’s Cafeteria of the Golden Rule, opened in 1931 at 618 South Olive Street in 1931. There, Clinton established his rule of not turning any customers away — even if they had no money whatsoever. Each location, too, had its own, inevitably kitschy, theme. The second location, the one that still stands on Broadway, opened in 1935 and — on account of its mountain lodge theme — was named Clifton’s Brookdale after the Brookdale Lodge in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The original location was re-imagined as Clifton’s Pacific Seas in 1939. That location closed in 1960, was demolished, and replaced with a surface parking lot. The other former locations were in Lakewood, West Covina, Century City, the Financial District, Woodland Hills, Laguna Hills, Whittier, and San Bernardino. Nightclub operator Andrew Meieran bought Clifton’s Brookdale in 2010. It re-opened, minus its 1963 aluminum facade, in 2015. It closed in 2018. It’s since re-opened as Clifton’s Republic although it’s currently just operating as a bar — albeit one in a very memorable setting.
DINAH’S FRIED CHICKEN
Dinah’s began with three locations that were opened by a group of golf buddies but operated independently of one another, for the most part. The Culver City location was more of a coffee shop. The Glendale location, founded by Canadian immigrant David Pearson in 1967, was (and is) more of a fried chicken stand. Eventually, six other chicken stands opened. The last, in Burbank, closed around 1997. The Westchester location, billed as a “family restaurant,” opened in 1957. A new development is incorporating the Googie-style architecture but construction required that Dinah’s vacate the space. They announced, in October 2022, that they may not return. To keep abreast of developments, follow the Los Angeles Conservancy’s coverage here.
The Glendale location of Dinah’s is served by the Beeline Bus‘s 12 Line and Metro’s 180 and 603 lines.
JIM DANDY FRIED CHICKEN
In the early 1960s, Walter “Ed” Johnson and Rex Sanders operated a string of fired chicken stands. In 1969, a partnership of Los Angeles’s Host International and Massachusetts‘s Friendly’s Ice Cream Group took over the stands and rebranded them Jim Dandy Fried Chicken. Many new purpose-built locations opened in buildings designed to look like triangle-roofed shacks. There were initially 29 locations The deal between Host, Friendly’s, Johnson, and Sanders included a noncompetitive clause that barred Johnson and Sanders from operating any fried chicken restaurants for several years. When the clause expired, they opened the first location of Grandy’s in 1977. Around 1979, Host cut the chain loose. Locations began to close. In 2019, the second to last location, in West Park Terrace, closed and became Charlie’s Famous Fried Chicken. The last location, open since 1969, stands at 11328 Vermont Avenue in Magnolia Square.
PINOY-PINAY FILIPINO FASTFOOD
The first Pinoy-Pinay Filipino Fastfood was established in Cerritos by J. Marlo Cruz in 1991. Cruz was born in the Philippines and graduated with a degree from De La Salle University in 1983. He emigrated to the US in 1984 and worked at restaurants including Mother Butler Pies and La Petite Boulangerie before taking a job at Air Treads, before opening Pinoy-Pinay. As its popularity grew, the restaurant expanded into the adjacent commercial space. By 2013, there were locations in West Covina, Panorama City, and Las Vegas. The latter two were managed by Cruz’s business partner, Ismael Trinidad. All, however, have since closed except for the original location in Cerritos.
THE RED ONION
The last location of Red Onion still in operation is located in Rolling Hills Estates. The roots of the chain lie in Las Gijas, Arizona, where Sonora-born Catalina Castillo ran a kitchen that catered to miners. She was married to a blacksmith, Guillermo Spiva. They had two sons, Enrique (nicknamed Harry) and Bart. After Spiva died in a hunting accident, Castillo married William Earle, who adopted the boys and gave them his family name. Harry moved to Los Angeles, where — after working in several restaurants — he opened El Rae (“Earl” backward) in 1942. in 1949, he opened The Red Onion Cafe in Inglewood.
At its peak, there were 26 locations of Red Onion in at least four Southern California counties. Several Red Onions were operated by Harry’s sons, Bart and Don, and many operated as much as singles bars as they did Mexican restaurants. Bart opened the Rolling Hills Estates location, the third in the chain, in 1963. Many locations were bought by Host International in 1973 and changed to Casa Maria. In 1975, Don Earle formed a separate company, International Onion, Inc. In 1978, Dan “Grizzly Adams” Haggerty sued the chain after he caught his signature beard on fire with one of the chain’s signature flaming cocktails. Noise complaints and claims of racial exclusion hurt the chain’s business. AIDS ended the era of singles bar chains. Many, like TGI Fridays, Chili’s, and Applebee’s, survived by transitioning into family-friendly pub chains. Some at the Red Onion felt that the Red Onion brand was irrevocably tarnished. The Newport Beach location changed its name to Panama Joe’s. The Manhattan Beach location became Grande Catalina. The Rolling Hills Estates location became The Original Red Onion. International Onion declared bankruptcy in 1992. Since 25 October 1993, the Rolling Hills Estates location has been the only one that remains in operation. Bart Earle died in 2011. The last Red Onion is run by his son, Jeff Earle.
The Last Red Onion standing is served by PVPTA‘s 225, Silver, and White lines.