It was an ordinary Thursday afternoon last week at Tony’s on the Pier. Manny Jimenez poured drinks behind the bar as he has for the past 34 years. Suddenly, a sailboat flipped over and slammed into the pilings of the Redondo Beach pier.
“The pier shook big time,” Jimenez said. “More than I ever felt.”
Jimenez is familiar with the pier shaking from big waves, but this was something else. With a bird’s eye view from the seafood restaurant’s iconic “crow’s nest” bar high above the waves, patrons watched in horror as the four-person crew were hurled into the ocean and the boat broke apart against the pilings.
“Everybody upstairs was just glued to the window,” Jimenez said.
For Jimenez, who’s been tending bar at Tony’s for more than three decades, nothing this dramatic has happened since the fire and two storms in 1988.
Little has changed in this legendary Redondo Beach restaurant since it opened in 1952, from the tiki bar décor to the menu. Even the bartenders and wait staff go back pretty far. In addition to Jimenez, two others go back nearly 40 years and another almost 50.
"I ask my friends, ‘do you like my office?’ This is why I'm here,” Jimenez said, motioning to the view of the ocean, arguably one of the best places to watch sunsets in the South Bay. “We're happy to come to work.”
Family run business
Billy Morgan, who’s been tending bar at Tony’s for 48 years, said the fact that it’s a family-run business makes all the difference. Founder Tony Trutanich passed away about nine years ago, and the restaurant carries on under his wife and four children. This year marks its 65th anniversary.
“Tony's has been a tradition among families for generations,” Morgan said. “It’s just tradition. You come to Tony's for a celebration.”
Tony’s son Michael Trutanich said his father always prided himself on welcoming every customer and treating his staff like family.
“He was very personable and he loved his customers,” Trutanich said.
Along with great seafood, you also come to Tony’s for the Mai Tais, which they estimate to have sold 7 million. Exactly how many have Morgan and Jimenez personally poured? They can’t say exactly, but likely about a million each.
With every Mai Tai—or Fire Chief, a drink that includes grenadine and a float of Bacardi 151—comes a souvenir glass, a mainstay of every South Bay kitchen cupboard.
Another tradition at Tony’s is the cioppino. Its recipe the chefs keep locked up in a secret location. But most of all, what makes Tony’s special is the service, say frequent customers. Quick to remember your name and favorite drink, they make everyone feel at home.
“I'm sometimes bad with names,” Morgan admits. “But I can usually remember what they drink.”
The 'New' Old Tonys
It’s all part of what continues to make Tony’s a success. But these days the future is uncertain with the possible transformation of the pier, drawing businesses like Tony’s into a debate that has divided Redondo Beach.
In the bitter campaign that surrounded Measure C, which passed in March, Tony’s endorsed the “No” campaign, in support of the $400 million redevelopment project with assurances from CenterCal, the project developer, that Tony’s will have a place on the new pier.
“The whole area is in need of repair. It’s a very old building,” Trutanich said. “I liked CenterCal from the meetings I had with them. We definitely need to do something down here to upgrade the Redondo area. Hopefully they would keep our restaurant pretty much the way it looked.”
The plan calls for completely replacing the wooden structure and giving Tony’s a fresh new modern look, complete with an upstairs bar.
“Obviously, you don't want to think it will go away,” Morgan said. “We'll just have to hang in there and keep doing what we do.”
“They say nothing is forever,” Jimenez said.
As a fixture in the South Bay, Tony’s benefits from nostalgia. It’s a place where young and old mix. People meet their spouses and years later return with their kids. It’s been frequented by movie stars, whose pictures hang on the walls.
In the 1970s, the restaurant was so popular that Tony opened a second location on the north side of the pier known as New Tony’s, which informally made the original location Old Tony’s. In 2008, faced with an economic recession, they closed New Tony’s and went back to a single location.
Whatever happens, both longtime bartenders are sure that Tony’s will survive for many more years to come.
“I think Tony had a direct line to the guy upstairs,” said Morgan while sipping coffee at the restaurant on a recent afternoon.
The reason for this perceived good fortune stems from the restaurant surviving the fire in 1988.
Ask these two bartenders about the fire and they remember the exact date: “May 27, 1988 on a Friday afternoon,” they recite in unison.
That fire burned almost the entire pier right up to the restaurant’s door. That was the sign, they say, that Tony’s was here to stay.