Two men, Thomas Kelley and Jack Bouck, combined the first syllables of their last names and invented Kelbo’s, a small chain of Hawaiian barbecues that were not all that Hawaiian: Burgers, barbecue meat sandwiches and some miscellaneous seafood. The concession to the islands was that every plate was garnished with a piece of pineapple and the fried shrimp was coated with coconut. They also served very sweet (but very good) barbecued ribs and had a menu of tropical drinks, some of which came flaming or served in a skull mug. About half of each restaurant was a large, dimly-lit bar that I suppose some found atmospheric. I never saw anyone there who looked like they might have been a hooker but given the mood, it wouldn’t have surprised me.

What was Hawaiian — and much of the appeal of the places — was the decor which was comprised of tiki gods, fish nets, lanterns in the shape of pineapples, and other things you could buy at any cheap patio furniture shop to suggest a real cheesy tropical motif. Some of it seemed to have come from a chain of stores that existed in L.A. in the early sixties called The Akron. A gentleman named Eli Hedley was reportedly the main designer and he also was responsible for the interior of other tropical-themed restaurants like Don the Beachcomber. I don’t know when Mr. Hedley did that voodoo that he did so well but Kelbo’s felt like a place that had been decorated in the thirties or forties and then no one changed anything.

I frequented two Kelbo’s. One, on Fairfax across from CBS Television City, was torn down and there’s an outlet of The Vitamin Shoppe at that address today. It was a popular hangout for crew members who worked across the street at CBS Television City in the fifties and sixties.

The building that housed the other was over on Pico at Exposition.  It still stands but has been converted into a bikini bar called Fantasy Island.  I haven’t been inside since it stopped being Kelbo’s but I’ll bet they kept some of the old Hedley-selected furnishings and tiki tchotchkes.

Click above to enlarge a little

One other thing that interested me about Kelbo’s was that much of its advertising art —like the drawing above — was done by a gent named Bob Hale who otherwise turned up on Los Angeles TV from time to time as a cartooning weatherman. (He was also active in Seattle where he owned a popular hobby shop that bore his name.) Hale’s drawings of a fat Hawaiian guy in native garb could be seen on Kelbo’s napkins and menus, and both of the outlets I visited had had huge Bob Hale murals on the outside, all featuring his little signature character, Sammy the Seagull. Sammy was always being drawn into his TV weathercasts, shivering or tanning himself depending on the forecast. It was said that Mr. Hale had once had a severe drinking problem and that after he quit, he lectured and illustrated pamphlets for Alcoholics Anonymous or some such group. Which always made me wonder why he had done so much work promoting a place where a lot of people just went to drink.

118 Responses to Kelbo’s

  • Joanne Cohan says:

    When I was a kid we went to Kelbo’s on Fairfax all the time! I would order the beef sandwich or sometimes the combo with ribs. They always had a dill pickle on the plate.

  • David Swarat says:

    In 1966 after dating my now bride of 49 years, for 4 years I asked her to be mine for life.
    We did not care what the food taste like, we were together ( I did like the ribs yum yum)

  • John Silver says:

    Jack Bouck was a close friend of the family. My father, Bud Silver, was the manager of Kelbo’s for many years and my mother, Joy Silver, was the hostess also for many years. I worked at Kelbo’s driving between the Pico and Fairfax locations. I was delivering the barbecue sauce for the ribs and the ingredients for the tropical drinks. I’ll never forget the smell of that delivery van! I can picture Jack now in our garage on Federal Avenue where he made most of the decorations for the restaurant. We ate ribs for dinner most nights. When we weren’t having ribs, we were eating hamburgers from the Apple Pan. Life was good then. “See You at the Pump”, Jack.

  • Linda says:

    Been looking for kelbos rib recipe for years! Please post if u have it, talk about comfort food

    My parents used to bring home the rib take out- yummy pork ribs, baked sweet potato with real butter, pineapple with half red cherry, and slice of dill pickle. — just the best… Restaurant so tiki cool, back lit menus, hanging glowing blow fish,such a great memory

  • Nancy says:

    I remember a room for dancing at the Kelbo’s on Pico where they flashed black
    and white pictures on the wall of the old big bands.

  • Lee Smith says:

    I was at Don the beachcomber’s tonight for ribs, hoping they were like Kelbos. Very good, but no cigar does anyone make anything like those sweet ribs now?

  • Patrick Tierney says:

    I worked a long running comedy act at Kelbo’s in the Coco Bowl and did a video interview with Tom Kelly. He said him and bunch of friends would get drunk and decorated the place. Perhaps Elias Hadly “The Original Beachcomber” pitched in as he had a tropical supplies store in Hollywood (I interviewed on of his daughters). Before that he was out at White’s Point in a driftwood home selling his decor on the beach there.

  • Patrick Tierney says:

    Wow! I see I duplicated my information! So ignore today’s post!

  • suz says:

    Back in the 1960’s my family frequented Kelbo’s a lot! We loved the ribs, chicken and the tropical drinks were awesome. The Hawaiian decorations were great also. Now we are living in Orange County and I would dearly love to have a Kelbo’s here. Would that be a possibility? We dohave a Don The Beachcomer in OC but nothing compares to Kelbo’s.

  • Kenneth H. Fleischer says:

    Kelbo’s at Exposition and Gateway was one of my regular places; I went there when their original building stood; made of whatever Kelly and Bouck could scrounge together after the War, it one day got destroyed by a kitchen fire, and they rebuilt it with cinder blocks and made the former décor seem conservative. Over the decades, I went there so often that I was recognized and asked such questions as, “Your usual?” They had the second-best spare ribs in Los Angeles; the best were my Mom’s. Unlike most restaurants, they had enclosed booths that afforded some privacy. It was a great place for lovers to dine; when I was dating, it was to Kelbo’s that we went, more than all other restaurants combined. Kelbo’s and Anna’s were my two most-favored restaurants, and I miss them both.

  • Shellie Leonard Willden says:

    I grew up in Kelbos. My Grandaddy worked as a singer/matradee at the band box across from CBS. I have never found any ribs compare to kelbos. The closest would be ribs from a Chinese restaurant. I would give a kidney for the recipe.

  • John Hindsill says:

    Say it ain’t so, Shellie. A kidney (especially if it’s your own kidney) is a dear price for a recipe. None can be that good.

  • Susan Lillis Bouck- Smith says:

    I will never tire of reading everyone’s comments about KELBO’S.
    My Dad , Jack Bouck gathered recipes when he was a drummer/ percussionist on a cruise ship that circled the So. Pacific. For 3 years he would cook for the band members after completing their last set. This was in the late 20’s to early 1930’s. Dad met Tom Kelly when they both worked at the Long Beach Ship yards during WW2. My parents invited the Kelleys over one night for dinner, Dad served his RIBS…..and the story began.
    Dad died Jan 18,1971…”See you at the Pump” is on his headstone -Love you Dad 🌴

  • Ron Bailey says:

    Wow this is sad. I was looking Kelbos up hoping I could find one closer to where I live now so I could take my kids there. When I was a kid my Dad would take us to the one on Pico, It was the place we always picked for special occasions , birthdays,graduations etc. The ribs were delicious and if I remember correctly , a flaming zombo, in a mug shaped like a coconut. But my favorite was the salad dressing,my Dad always knew we were gonna want a jar to take home, because you could buy it. It was so good. It’s a shame it’s gone, now I really want to go, Good memories of good times.

  • Ron smith says:

    It was the first restaurant that had virgin version of drinks. I thlught i was so cool with my virgin pina colada

  • Darrel King says:

    My mom used to take me there for special occasions. Years later, I’d bring my staff there for meetings. I really miss that place, it was so unique to Los Angeles, and such a connection to our past, like El Coyote, and The Canton Kitchen, places like that should just never go away.

  • Rick Esslinger says:

    Back in the early 70’s my (now) wife and I used to frequent Kelbo’s on Pico every payday. We loved the atmosphere and drank CocoBo’s with our dinner. The flaming drinks were always fun and would be ordered when we took another couple with us. We loved the corny (albeit dusty) atmosphere. It’s a shame the restaurant is no longer around. It was always fun and I would go back there in a heart beat.

  • Anna says:

    Why did kelbos close?? We miss it so much….anyone know???

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