Kelbo’s

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.

78 Responses to Kelbo’s

  • Vince Silis says:

    Started going to the Kelbo’s on Pico in the late 70′s while I was in High School. Kept going while in college. Had my wedding rehersal dinner in the Coco Bowl Room in 1991; most memorable dance was with my 5 year old god-daughter, who was our ring bearer a few days later. Wedding was at Yamashiro’s – another great LA landmark, which I believe is still open in some form. Losing Kelbo’s was a tragedy.

  • ArchiesBoy says:

    Kelbo’s on Fairfax and Kelbo’s on Pico. Nothin’ like ‘em. I took our family to both of ‘em for over 30 years. Just about always had the same thing: Chopped BBQ beef sandwich (with the pineapple slice inside) the salad with that wondrous secret dressing, and a couple of those marvelous tropical drinks! What fun to try to figure out what was in them! What fun to explore the place, so fabulously beautiful — tiki inspirations!

    I remember when the newly refurbished Kelbo’s opened on Pico: we were there for opening night. God was that gorgeous inside! The decor was so transcendentally tiki and complex that most of it was made in their own shop, and was powered by their own separate generator. I spent quite a bit of time that night talking to Jack Bouck, who was greeting guests at the door, and dressed in the by-goddest aloha *tuxedo* you have ever seen!

    Wonderful wonderful times there!

    And then — in time, over the years — it degenerated into that crappy strip joint…how the mighty have fallen! (But then, there’s still the Tiki Ti: rough around the edges, but still serving the mightiest Tiki Drinks in Southern California!)

  • Sharon says:

    My husband, of 52 years, and I had our first date night at Kelbos. Just yesterday he was lamenting that he missed having ribs from Kelbos. So I decided to try to look up the recipe.

    I had no idea that I would find so many people longing for these ribs so many years later. What a tribute. I agree it is a tragedy to lose this recipe. What a way to be remembered. Way to go Jack and Tom!!

  • Gloria says:

    My husband & I had just been to the “Fabulous Forum” to see a Laker game, but they were sold out. We went to Kelbo’s to cheer up, and met Mr. Bouk, who was at the bar working on a new drink: Coffee Grog. He asked our opinion. I loved it! Mr. Bouk told us how the restaurant started. He’d developed the rib recipe while he was in the service stationed in Hawaii. Friends said it was so good, he should open a restaurant. Back in the States after World War II, he and Mr. Kelley bought the property at Pico & Gateway, which was cheap because the area was just a wasteland. People somehow came to the opening (they ran out of ribs because they didn’t expect such a crowd). The decorations were amazing. In later years, the Pico restaurant burned down, but they rebuilt and managed to add new kitchy decorations, including a home-made panel (I think it was a door) with everything embedded in it, including a half-eaten piece of toast with jelly!

    Mr. Bouk died of a heart attack right in the Pico restaurant. The place was never the same after that. He loved everybody and everybody loved him.

  • Paul Goolnick says:

    Try to contact some of these people if you are still looking for a Kelbos Photo.

    Paul Goolnick

  • Kenneth H. Fleischer says:

    I’ve been here since 1944, and I remember Kelbo’s very fondly from many decades of pleasure, there. By the way, theirs were the second-best Hawaiian-style spare ribs in Los Angeles; my Mom made the best, and I still have her recipe. Those at Kelbo’s were a close second, though, and their bar was first-rate. I was enough of a regular, there, that I was recognized and addressed by name. There are tales I could tell …

  • Kathie says:

    I came to California (Santa Monica) with my parents at age 4 1/2 in February 1954. One of my FIRST memories is of Kelbos (and of The Golden Bull down the street), which at that time was a little place with a counter and a drive-in on the side. They had a teeny room off the counter area that had the beginnings of what Kelbos would eventually become, with all the stuff hanging on the walls and from the ceiling. When my parents divorced, Mom and I would go to the drive in on the side and get “Rib Bits” to go and take them with us to the Olympic Drive in. I learned to LOVE yams there. Everything they made had a distinctive taste. Someone once told me that you can come CLOSE to the salad dressing by adding garlic to a standard Thousand Island. I tried it using Bob’s brand and it was CLOSE, but no real cigar. I can’t count the number of special occasions and just everyday dinners I had there over the years. I know it lasted me through three marriages (LOL). I’ve spotted celebrities at the next table. I live in Las Vegas now….went to a local Japanese teppan/sushi restaurant and ordered egg rolls. With my first bite of them I suddenly felt so happy and couldn’t get enough of them. My companions weren’t nearly as enthusiastic as I was and it took me a while to realize that they tasted JUST like Kelbo’s!!!!!

  • john turner says:

    looking for photographs of Korla Pandit playing at Kelbo’s

  • Robert Teitelbaum says:

    I remember Kelbos from the early 1940s. I am now 80. When I was a boy I used to visit my (divorced) father in L.A. and after the first time he took me to Kelbos, I always asked to go back for those wonderful ribs, whenever I visited him. To this day, barbequed ribs are my favorite dish, although none have been as good as Kelbo’s Hawaiian ribs. Since my wife and I will be in L.A. soon to visit a grandson who is law clerking for a federal judge there, I googled Kelbos on the very small chance that it would still exist some 70 years later. At least I found this website, which brings back beautiful memories. Thanks for that.

  • Alex Walker says:

    I’m 61 now and recall my parents taking me with them to the Kelbo’s on Pico in the mid to late ’50′s before the freeway took our house on Corinth Avenue near Pearl – now where the southbound transition road of the 405 connects with 10. We moved to The Valley in 1960 so that was my last tour of the great Kelbo’s experience. I remember now those sketches, particularly the pontoon boat and the one with the fat Hawaiian and the pretty girl in the bikini. My God, what a flashback this is – I just stumbled upon this, recalling the name of the place so I did a search for Kelbo’s after taking a tour of my childhood neighborhood and the Richland Avenue Elementary School on Google Earth.

    I was always fascinated by the back-lit menus on the walls of the booths with photos of the various dishes. I remember license plates among the nets and glass floats and other island decor in the darkness. I think I would’ve enjoyed going there as an adult. I think they may have been ahead of their time, given what you see now in various restaurant chains. I too remember it seeming to burn down periodically and yet the place looked almost the same once it was back up – back lighted menus on the booth walls and all. My parents apparently knew the owners by name as I recall them bantering and occasionally speaking in “pig Latin” instead of covering my ears as to what they were talking about. My parents were Alex & Velma Akoury. I go by a different name now. Not sure if Emilio or any of the others recall them or not. They have both passed on.

    I live in Florida now, and you’d think there would be a place like Kelbo’s here but I’ve yet to see one. In doing some of the street tours on Google Earth, I was amazed at how much that part of L.A. looks like parts of Florida, especially the palm trees and the little houses with hip roofs which they have here as they are resistant to hurricanes. It’s been a long, strange trip, and this little jog of my memory bank was greatly enjoyed.

  • Marshall says:

    Mr. Riddle was a nice guy

  • ted says:

    Does anyone know the recipe for the drink Kelbo’s called “The Thing”?

  • Richard Maxwell says:

    I haven’t lived in California since the mid seventies but when I did live there Kelbos on Pico was my favorite restaurant. I loved their baby back ribs. It was great food and a great atmosphere. I guess that in this day and age with all of the PC goons running around getting upset about any and all things they would be upset by some of the menus, decor and so forth. Fortunately back then we didn’t have any of that lunacy. People were a lot calmer probably because there wasn’t the internet where the rabble rousers could get everyone stirred up. Great memories. Too bad it shut down.

  • Steven Gross says:

    Try this one! Does anyone remember that on napkins, bar coasters, matchbooks, etc appeared the letters: IITYWIMWYBMAD? Post here if you recall or email me for the answer! stevenp.gross@gmail.com

  • Loro says:

    Bamboo Ben is the grandson of Eli Hedley and he carries on the family business of creating tropical paradise in restaurants, bars and private homes.

  • The Management says:

    It stood for IF I TELL YOU WHAT IT MEANS, WILL YOU BUY ME A DRINK?

  • bobbi k says:

    On a warm summer nite in 1957 — Ihad dinner with my roommate at the Fairfax location & after ordering the big drink that came in somesort of a bowl at the bar we were seated in a booth in the diningroom. Kiddycorner across from us was a group of guys having dinner. a tall goodlooking guy walked over to us-said hi & asked if we’d like to go for a ride in a convertable. I told him no thnks as I had my own—–parked outside. They soon left and we continued our dinner & then left. Gathered around my blue ford convert were allthese guys & of course we started to flirt & converse.so to make this long story shorter if I didn’t love Kelbos ribs & coleslaw—–I would’nt have met my husband of 55 years.

  • Bob Pegram says:

    I remember going to Kelbo’s as a kid with my parents in the early 1960s. Did it later become Billingtons’ or was that on Olympic? It was about the same distance from the freeway on the south side of the street. It was owned by the husband of the woman who played the mother on Leave It To Beaver and was later run by their sons.

  • Carol says:

    What fun to have run across this website, sure brought up many happy memories of great food and great dates . Lots of thanks to the owners and their families who shared their special meals with us. I live in Montana and recall my nursing school years a lot of which was spent at Kelbo’s. For sure nothing remotely like it here!

  • Cindy says:

    It’s amazing to read all these comments, really brings back lots of memories from the 50′s. We lived on Sawtell Blvd. and my dad would take the family to Kelbo’s often. Besides the ribs we would always get a side of cole slaw and the baked beans which must have soaked and cooked in molasses for hours. I also remember the great pickle spears that came with probably everything. It was so dark but the lighting was selective and mysterious. I was fascinated by all the decorations and always found something new to look at and I thought it was real. I walked to Richland Ave. and later Daniel Webster Jr. High with my best friend Virginia who lived on Corinth around the corner. I remember the Santa Ana winds that roared through the summer. Our house also got taken by the freeway and I wound up in Canoga Park for high school, later the east coast and now Humboldt County, too far from Kelbo’s to return until about 1990-1 with my boyfriend. Thanks “ChocolateDr”, (earlier post) for the ribs recipe, gonna give it a shot with a bit less sugar. Hope to find a recipe to duplicate those beans! I think the pickles were kosher – great combinations of food.

  • Mary Pat Haley and Robert Ehrstrom says:

    We got married at St. Joan of Arc’s but dated and went to Kelbo’s occasionally. Loved the drinks served in coconuts.
    And the Akron store! YES!!!!

  • Mary Pat Haley and Robert Ehrstrom says:

    and we live in Humboldt County

  • Ron says:

    Does anybody remember Herbie’s Nut House just west of Kelbo’s on Pico?

  • Robert Speck says:

    HereMy first job was at the Kelbo’s Pico back in ’60. I probably helped marinate some of those awesome ribs some of you guys loved (a 72 hour soak) way back then. Another of my favorites was the BBQ ham sandwich that Jimmy (one of the cooks) would pile extra high for us skinny kids! Oh, life was simple then. . . After HS (Uni) went in the Navy, moved to Riverside and never made it back. :-(
    I remember Ralph’s Nut House there. Last of the great soda fountains and home made candy shops!

  • J.K. Curry says:

    LOVED Kelbos! I’m looking for the recipe for the steak sauce that Kelbo’s had on the tables and sold at the cashier. It was the same recipe used at Ted’s Grill in Santa Monica Cyn. Any and all help will be appreciated. Thanks!

  • Fred Sherman says:

    I first went to Kelbo’s in 1965. I was 16, had my first car. And my first LOVE
    Sami. We went with Uzzie and Tisa, our friends. After seating us the waiter asked if we wanted a drink? Well put some kids in front of a light up bar menu.
    We ordered (of course) anyway a little while later, with other staff looking over the walled booth, our waiter returns and asked for ID. We all BLUSH and can’t find our wallets. Everyone snickers, ha ha. We leave Green Stamps for a tip, and then forget my keys in the resturant, ha ha, again. None the less we returned over and over again. I loved this place, it lasted way longer then Sami did. My wife and I went until the end. Yum, Yum

  • JACK WOLF says:

    I began going to Kelbo’s in 1975, and went there until they closed in 1993. By far, Kelbo’s had the best ribs in L.A.! These were Hawaiian ribs, almost impossible to find in this area, and they were sweet and unique. The atmosphere was amazing, and they had these lighted, colored menus on each table, showing all items. I really miss this place, as well as Love’s, located on Pico just west of Beverly Hills.

  • Rick Clark says:

    Ah, I too remember Kelbo’s Pico. My girlfriend and I would go there after church driving Dad’s gigantor 1973 Fleetwood Brougham Cadillac the one with the giant back seat! We’d sit in the Kelbo’s booth and slide my hand on the back lighted menu box until ours turned off, and we thought we were cool and romantic to have a darker table. We always asked for the waiter named Ken who was terrific to a young couple with much love but not a lot of money. He treated us like royalty despite us being a couple of kids still in High School. I recall the food was excellent and we always had a Coco Brownie giant beverage bowl with two long straws. Or the pupule, I think it was called. Oh, the fun happy days of early 70′s Los Angeles. The Garden Spot of the planet, and Kelbo’s ribs were so great.

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