The Mid-City roadside burger stand celebrates half a century in business.
Capitol Burgers may well be the exception that proves the rule. High quality Southern California-style burger stands like this one aren’t supposed to stay so hidden for so long, let alone right in the heart of the city. Yet this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Mid-City icon, and there’s a better than average chance that you’ve still never eaten there.
Maybe it’s the handful of well-worn picnic tables that stand in for seating, or the long metal bars over the order window. Maybe it’s the way your meal gets pushed to you through a small opening on a cardboard tray that, not long before, maybe held a couple of twelve packs of Milwaukee’s Best.
The entire stand, floating in a lagoon of parking lot concrete just west of Crenshaw on Pico Blvd., seems easy to forget as you drive past to all points elsewhere. But if you ever took a few spare moments, sitting bumper to bumper in westbound traffic, to notice the customers, the workers, the community at Capitol Burgers, the smiles on their faces might be enough to convince you to pull in.
It’s the community that keeps owner John Stamos coming back
It’s the community that keeps owner John Stamos coming back to Capitol Burgers every morning, after making his midnight run to the produce markets downtown to pick up the day’s needs. The stand has maintained a strong presence in the sometimes gang-riddled neighborhood, which has transitioned over the decades from a mostly industrial pass-thru to a place for low income families to congregate.
Wire transfer stations, liquor stores, and auto body shops still proliferate, but behind those barriers to entry is a thriving community of blacks, whites, Latinos and Koreans, commingling and often leaning on each other for support. This is the community that Stamos loves, and the one that his father helped to maintain for decades.
"We’re part of the community. Back in the day, my father helped a lot of people out," says Stamos of his father George who founded Capitol Burgers before passing away in 2013. "Financially, if someone was down on their luck, it was ‘Hey George, can I borrow five bucks? I’ll pay you back.’ It was just to put food in their stomach."
Pull in, and you won’t have to wait long to see Stamos do the exact same thing. He waves at customers as they pedal by on bicycles, slaps friends on the back when they come for a quick meal. "Sometimes people call me the community watchdog, because on these four corners I see everything. You might not know me personally, but I’m the one watching to make sure your kid gets home safe from school."
I started working here when I was eight, so I knew how to do everything
It’s the role that Stamos has taken on for more than a quarter of a century himself, after dropping plans to be an auto mechanic to stand side by side with his father George, working the griddle. "I started looking at myself and at the business, and this was already established, it was already going," says Stamos. "I had really started working here when I was eight, so I knew how to do everything."
It also gave John the chance to reconnect with his father, who had manned Capitol Burgers every day since the beginning in 1965. "He wasn’t just a father to me, he was my partner. Yeah, we had our ups and downs. There were several times where he literally threw me out. But you know what? I always knocked on the door and he’d let me back in."
John Stamos, Owner
This is where the conversation gets tough for the younger Stamos. George, ever the unheralded local hero, passed away in 2013, but his legacy stands as a celebration of his life, and of one man’s quest to make something of himself as a Greek immigrant to America. As John says, his father moved to Los Angeles on a Friday, and had a job at Jim’s Burgers in East L.A. by Sunday morning. He met his wife there, and eventually saved enough money to open Capitol Burgers in Mid-City, getting up every day at 4 a.m. to pick produce Downtown and get the stand ready for the day. He worked just as hard until the day he died.
Since his passing, there are a lot of things that still remind me of my father
"I check the corners, and I’m always waiting for my father to show up," laments Stamos. "Since his passing, there are a lot of things that still remind me of my father. That’s the hard part. And I know that I have to get over it, but I never will. I can only accept it, and that’s very hard for me."
At his funeral, John talked at length to the hundreds that showed up about what George’s life meant to him, and to the neighborhood. "Without the businesses, the community won’t be here. Without the community, the business won’t be here. It’s literally about these people."
With that, Stamos waves to his makeshift patio, where third-generation diners swap stories with friends who have been coming for decades. A transient girl was begging for change from customers before Stamos hands her a free hamburger; she munches away happily. Stamos’ girlfriend is here, along with childhood friends and curious eaters pulling into the parking lot for the first time. It would seem too orchestrated if it didn’t happen all the time.
"They’re all part of the community. We’re part of the community. We help each other out."
And then, a beat.
"It still hurts. My father’s not here. People come around, and it’s been almost two years, and they tell me about how they knew my father, how they’ve been coming here for 20 years. And that still hurts me emotionally. It’s deep."