Just three short blocks east of the Pacific Ocean hangs an oversized black cauldron with a neon green “Open All Night” sign glowing underneath. The Kettle — both the object and the restaurant that sits beneath it — is a Manhattan Beach icon, one of the coastal city’s oldest restaurants. In a city mostly known for its volleyball courts, surf swells, iconic Spanish-tiled pier, and gleaming ocean backdrop, the Kettle, a nearly half-century-old South Bay institution, is the communal dining room and patio of Manhattan Beach. It’s where locals go to celebrate the Dodgers, Kings, and Lakers winning championships; to take the family out to brunch on a lazy Sunday morning; and where they go to sober up after a few too many at nearby dive bars Ercoles or Shellback Tavern, both holdovers from a previous era in South Bay history.
Despite 17 months of a global pandemic, the Kettle today remains as much an integral part of the Manhattan Beach restaurant scene as ever. Slip farther into the restaurant to find masked cooks and servers bustling around between the pass, tables, and the register. Regulars fall into dark red booths, soaking up the cozy cabin-meets-pub ambiance while ordering a club sandwich, veggie omelet, patty melt, or another Americana comfort food dish from the customizable trifold menu. Just like living by the beach itself, at the Kettle there’s basically no way to do it wrong.
“This is only a guide,” says a note above the appetizer section of the menu, “please feel free to be creative.”
In the early 1960s, the Kettle’s original owner, Wally Botello, was a stakeholder in the Criterion, itself a diner in downtown Manhattan Beach. Rumor has it that Wally had a falling out with his Criterion partner, so he took over the Attlantic Richfield gas station property on the corner of Manhattan Beach Boulevard and Highland Avenue with the overt intention of putting his spurned partner out of business. The Kettle, his personal spite operation, opened in 1973.
It’s a great story, but like tales of big fish on the hook and big waves on the board, the truth can be hard to pin down. When pressed for additional information, Kettle management and Wally’s son Michael Botello both chuckle at the contemptuous anecdote; they decline to go into more detail. Whatever the actual origin, in 1976 the elder Botello retired to Palm Springs where he eventually opened the legendary Wally’s Desert Turtle restaurant. He sold the Kettle to restaurateur Arthur J. Simms, patriarch of the Simms Restaurants group, which owns notable South Bay establishments the Arthur J, Simmzy’s, Tin Roof Bistro, Fishing With Dynamite, and MB Post.
As for the Criterion, it closed in the late 1980s, and now anyone who has spent any time in Manhattan Beach — particularly during the late-night hours — knows the Kettle.
Manhattan Beach has changed a lot since those early years, shifting from a quiet beachfront town to one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the country. The city is now home to multimillion-dollar oceanfront mansions owned by celebrities, studio execs, athletes, and has become a destination for dining all its own. And yet, despite the flux, the Kettle’s approachable greasy spoon presence remains, allowing Manhattan Beach to preserve at least a small piece of its former small-town personality. The restaurant is the only 24/7 diner in the area and can get a little rowdy late at night; there’s even a security guard for weekend evenings, ready to turn away unruly customers between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. They also cut off beer and wine sales at midnight in order to maintain a family-friendly reputation, says longtime general manager Jeff Byron.
Byron and lead front-of-house worker Donette M., who asked that her full name be withheld, say that they haven’t seen anything too crazy go down at the Kettle, though sometimes it’s not for a lack of trying. Byron says the security presence helps. “I’ll usually get couples canoodling a little too excessively in a booth, or a bar-hopping customer ordering a ton of food and passing out before it arrives,” says Donette.
These days, confrontations only come in the form of angry customers outraged over the county’s indoor mask mandate as a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. On several occasions, Byron says, Manhattan Beach police have gotten involved. “Just a few weeks ago,” says Byron, “we had a gentleman refuse to wear a mask inside or accept a mask from our waiter. Things got physical after he was taunted by a few customers, and I was forced to call the cops to break it up. Sadly, this was not the first time this has happened.”
Despite the ongoing challenges that come with running a restaurant (pandemic or not), the Kettle continues to attract record crowds at all hours. The signature warm muffins are easily the most popular item, says Byron, with something like 400 muffins (including the always available honey-bran) sold every weekday. That number jumps to 600 on busy summer weekends, making the simple act of stocking all those muffins a logistical feat — especially when considering that each of the thousands of weekly muffins are baked by just two back-of-house veterans. Other popular dishes include the hearty French onion soup, zucchini sticks, and the Chinese chicken salad, all items customers order more than 100 times a day. The newer fried chicken and biscuits entree is quickly scaling the ranks, though, both as a late-night option and a brunch pick.
That all-around appeal is part of what has kept the Kettle in business all these years. There’s something on the extensive menu for everyone to enjoy, including throwback dishes like the braised pot roast and campfire trout, though Byron admits he isn’t afraid to branch out as food trends evolve, too. Who knew in 1973 that, one day, the Kettle would have a kale Caesar salad on the menu?
“We have almost 50 off-menu items too,” adds Byron, “so we’ll make it if the ingredients are here.” One popular unlisted dish is the tacos bandidos platter, essentially a kitchen-sink fajitas concoction of flour tortillas, multiple meats, vegetables, a four-cheese blend, and hot sauce. The Jonathan B burger, complete with ham, two kinds of cheese, and avocado on a grilled sourdough bun, is also an in-the-know staple.
Lead server Donette says that her favorite part about working at the Kettle for some 30-odd years is interacting with new customers and, hopefully, getting to watch them become regulars over time. She’s also in charge of a large veteran front-of-house staff, part of the restaurant’s larger 86-person team. Many have been a part of the Kettle for more than two decades, with others — like Donette — clocking in with over three decades of experience. She’s seen plenty of things over that stretch and still enjoys when celebrities drop by.
“I’ve waited on Vince Vaughn in the dining room, Tiger Woods and Shaquille O’Neal at the counter, and Britney Spears and Kate Hudson out on the patio,” says Donette, though she and Byron are quick to add that locals make up the cornerstone of the business. Jim Withers, a lifetime Manhattan Beach resident, retired dentist, and Kettle regular, agrees. “My family and I have been coming to the Kettle every month since it opened in the ’70s,” says Withers. “The food has always been good, portions big, prices reasonable, and they always take care of my kids and grandkids, especially doing takeout for our Thanksgiving in 2020 when things in general weren’t great.”
While far from ideal, the Kettle was able to successfully shift to a takeout and hyper-local delivery model during the early days of the 2020 pandemic. The restaurant ran lean, with only 20 or so employees for the roughest six-month stretch; the rest were furloughed for a time, though virtually all have now returned (and a few have retired). Everyone stepped up to contribute as much as possible, and it also helped that the veteran kitchen team had the ability to prepare takeout as efficiently as when the dining room was full.
In March 2021 the Kettle returned to its 24-hour format, which was no small feat as the pandemic continues and staffing woes affect the restaurant industry at large. Byron says it hasn’t been easy. “Since reopening, we’ve been running well beyond a full house when combining dine-in and takeout orders,” he says. “Our infrastructure was built for pre-pandemic [sales], and the post-pandemic rush has been stressful for everyone.” Takeout orders currently make up roughly 20 percent of overall sales, versus 12 percent in pre-COVID sales.
The jump in takeout business along with the added pressure to manually input online third-party delivery orders have been the most difficult changes to manage, and the Kettle (and everyone else) has dealt with rising vendor costs, supply chain issues, and sporadic shortages of key items like crab, chicken, ham, and even wine.
“Although it’s been crazy, this is a wonderful problem to have,” Byron says of long, busy days at the Kettle, nodding to the restaurant’s full house and waiting parties on the sidewalk. Both he and Donette agree that they’re busier now than they’ve ever been throughout the restaurant’s 48 years in business. With the dining room and patio also at capacity, Donette mentioned that she can easily log over five miles bouncing from table to table during an eight-hour shift.
Once restrictions ease even more, the Kettle plans to bring back the complimentary honey-bran muffin bites and the self-serve coffee dispenser for waiting customers. “It is absolutely worth us footing the extra costs for the little things to keep our customers happy,” says Byron.
It’s that local connection, more than anything, that keeps the Kettle going strong after 48 years, even as the city, the people, and the business model itself change. At its best the Kettle, and places like it around Los Angeles, create a sense of shared nostalgia among diners — while also, somehow, serving customers and staying staffed around the clock. And while at first glance the Kettle may seem like a casual, almost rustic outlier in a wealthy coastal enclave, the truth is the restaurant and its menu act as a bridge between past and present Manhattan Beach.
The Kettle has been open since 1973 at 1138 Highland Avenue in Manhattan Beach, and is open 24 hours a day.