Stepping into Gus's Barbecue in South Pasadena doesn't exactly feel like falling back in time, and that's by design. Owners Chris and John Bicos, who took over from the original family nearly a decade ago, instead have made the place feel traditional — but not tired — by imbuing the place with a timeless sensibility that's sure to work for generations to come. Here's what it takes to keep a place like Gus's, founded in 1946, ticking every single day.
It's hard to really capture the year 1946 in anything other than a scrapbook. Just a year removed from the second World War, Los Angeles still looked vastly different as the rise of the modern freeway and fast food franchises began to drastically change the way entire cities thought about where they lived and spent their time. Small town America was quickly giving way to highway off-ramps and urban sprawl.
Perhaps LA County's oldest barbecue restaurant
But in that same year, brothers Jack and Gus Tripodes decided to double down on the great American Main Street, opening up the namesake Gus's Barbecue right in the heart of Fair Oaks Avenue in South Pasadena. Along with a brother-in-law, the men set out to provide good eats in a growing time of American bounty, dishing out ribs, drinks, and more to anyone who stopped by.
Flash forward more than half a century, and Fair Oaks Avenue looks rather different these days. The 710 freeway sits perilously close to the southern edge of South Pasadena, while the 110 freeway to the north still cuts a streak through the avenue, letting motorists whiz by nearly unabated. In the middle of it all still sits Gus's, a local institution that has weathered plenty of economic ups and downs to become perhaps Los Angeles County's oldest barbecue restaurant (more on that in a moment).
The Tripodes family is long gone, having transferred ownership to brothers Chris and John Bicos nine years ago. The Bicos family knows a thing or two about keeping up with the classics, having run the nearby Original Tops since the day it opened in 1952. Together — and with the full blessing of the Tripodes clan — the brothers set about rejuvenating the then 62 year-old restaurant, refreshing the space itself while returning much of the menu to its original intentions as a place for quality barbecue. Along the way the pair toured the country eating smoked meat and taking notes, before reemerging with their own pan-regional takes on ribs, pulled pork, and just about everything in between.
It's refreshing to see a place keep pace with the slow change of time
Today's Gus's Barbecue looks a good sight different than what you would have found back in 1946, but then again so did the rest of Los Angeles. If anything, it's refreshing to see a place keep pace with the slow change of time, rather than be swallowed by it whole. Heres co-owner John Bicos, talking about what's it like to manage a place with as much history and passion as Gus's.
What made you and your brother want to take over a place like Gus’s?
I was working in the family business, the original Top’s in Pasadena, and everything just kind of fell into perfect timing. The family that had Gus’s the past 60-some years was looking to get out and we knew them well. I actually grew up coming here as a kid, and I’ve always loved this place.
Your family certainly loves its Pasadena history. What is it about Gus’s that appealed to you?
I’ve always had a connection here. The best man at my wedding, his great-grandfather was Gus himself. It’s a landmark in South Pasadena. But this was also at a time for my family where we were trying to do something other than fast casual, and we felt that something with that rich of a tradition was a good move for us.
It’s been almost a decade now. How are things going?
Well, there was certainly a time when we thought we might have done the wrong thing [laughs]. But it’s been good. Honestly we’ve changed a lot of what was here, both in menu, recipes, and obviously design. We’ve had people coming here since before I was born, and that was maybe hard for some of them, but we wanted to get back to the roots of Gus’s and make things much more barbecue oriented, and as traditional as we could be.
We’ve maybe lost a few people — there was a guy on our second day of reopening that grabbed me by my shirt and told me I’d be out of business in six months — but the majority have come back, and I think we’re capturing a much larger part of the community now. If you remember before, Gus’s had barbecue items but they’d really become a diner essentially over time. They had ribs and barbecue chicken, but no smoker, and a lot of things had gone away.
It’s always nice to see a return to form for a place as old as this. Are you officially the oldest barbecue restaurant in Los Angeles?
You know, I think we are. We’ve thought about throwing that out there but haven’t been able to absolutely verify it. There’s Chris & Pitt’s in Bellflower that’s also from 1946, but I’m not sure. We’ve had this conversation many times [laughs].
Gus’s is turning 70 this year, which is a feat for any place. What’s next?
We definitely want another location some day, we’d love to do that. With its strong tradition and how well we’ve done here, it’s something that could do well in other neighborhoods. Something within 20 miles of here, for sure.
What’s the oldest remaining piece of Gus’s that you guys still use?
In the back room there’s a great old neon cocktail sign. When we were looking at some of the old pictures of Gus’s dating to like 1952, there was obviously the old blade sign out front but hanging underneath that was a little cocktail sign.
We asked the original owners where that sign was, and they had no idea, but they told us the folks who initially made the sign some 50 or 60 years ago. We went to them and they remembered the job, and they actually had it sitting in their yard after god knows how long. We went down there, it was all beat up, but it still worked and so we cleaned it up and hung it inside. That thing’s got to be 70 years old.
Gus's Barbecue, 808 Fair Oaks Ave., South Pasadena, CA.