Let’s just get it out of the way up top: Yes, Jay Harrington is that guy from that show. In fact, the trim, silver-haired actor has been in lots of stuff over the course of his long career. Currently, he’s in his sixth season on the high-powered CBS show S.W.A.T., to name just one credit. To a certain Santa Monica demographic, though, he’s just that guy who runs Rock ’N Pies, the family-friendly neighborhood place for a slice and a pint of beer.
“I sit in the corner, eat my salad, have the pizza once a week, and every once in a while people do say, ‘Hey, you look like that guy from that show,’” says Harrington, a thin chain peeking out from the neck of his tight T-shirt. “I just tell them ‘Well, that is me.’ And then they want to know why I’m bussing the tables, and I tell them that this is my restaurant.”
For more than a year now, Harrington has been the owner — and often the on-site manager — for Rock ’N Pies, a colorful Wilshire Boulevard pizzeria and pub that hides in the shadow of larger culinary contemporaries like Rustic Canyon (across the street) and Citrin and Mélisse (at the end of the block). Stop by most evenings to find Harrington running pizzas to tables, pulling pints of craft beer, or hovering near the kitchen, reminding employees to turn on the string lights near the tap handles and to fan out the bar napkins a little bit.
“These guys make fun of me all the time,” says Harrington with a laugh. “I drive them crazy, but it’s the little things.”
Five years ago, Harrington was just a fan of Rock ’N Pies. He befriended the owner the way most folks do, by becoming a regular. He would take meetings at the restaurant or swing through after work for a bite. In 2017 he even screened the pilot episode of S.W.A.T. at the restaurant, analyzing his performance along with a dining room full of cast and crew. When the business went up for sale he simply couldn’t see it passing into the hands of anyone else, lest they tinker with the model he already liked, so he bought it himself. And since he was showing up almost every day anyway he figured he might as well actually get his hands dirty, instead of just reading the profit and loss statements at the end of the month. The restaurant occasionally appears in Instagram posts to Harrington’s 371,000 followers, but most days it’s just business as usual.
“I work five days a week, eight to 10 hours days,” says Harrington of his day job as a successful television and film actor. “And then I’m here. My rule is at least two or three hours. I come in, I bus tables, I do whatever I can.”
So far, in under two years of ownership, Harrington has grown from a familiar face to the man with the mission: Keep Rock ’N Pies friendly, family-focused, and fun.
“We only have beer and wine,” he says. “I know if I got a liquor license I’d probably get more customers, but I don’t want that. I want the vibe to be what it is. We get regulars who come to have two slices and a beer, or a glass of wine. They’re here two or three times a week. That’s what makes a place.”
Harrington also isn’t about to jack up his prices or pour money into a remodel just to put his own unique stamp on things. Right now the place is an enduring mishmash of music paraphernalia and hand-painted artwork, plus the requisite stickers, neon signs, and televisions all left by the previous owner. Asking customers (even in Santa Monica) to pay more or to weather some big change in the look and feel of the place just doesn’t sit right for the Massachusetts-born Harrington.
“Look, inflation’s the real deal right now. You’ve heard the horror stories about lettuce costing whatever it costs,” says Harrington. “We were never going to raise prices just because I bought the place. I made it absolutely clear.” He cites an example: On football Sundays last fall, Rock ’N Pies offered half-priced baskets of wings and pitchers of beer (“domestic, let’s not be crazy”). Why knock down the price of two obviously high-volume items during game day?
“Well, if no one’s here then I’m not selling any wings,” says Harrington. “I want to attract people with deals, not with having the highest-end food in town. We have great food, don’t get me wrong, but people are hurting. I can take the hit right now, so let’s do it. And hopefully it all shakes out in the end.”
He tries to be equally cognizant of his staff, most of whom have been with him since he took over the place. Pedro Méndez oversees the back of the house as the executive chef, while Jacqie Lopez and Tanner Pierce hold down most of the front-of-house duties. They’re the real lifeblood of the place, Harrington says, keeping families fed and takeout orders humming during the many hours that he isn’t at the restaurant.
“These people stuck through all the bullshit we’ve had to go through,” he says, ticking off just a few of the many issues that have plagued restaurants and workers over the past few pandemic years. The restaurant is only open “because of them, and how hard they work,” he insists.
Seeing people, especially returning faces, come through the front door means that Harrington’s restaurant is working. Rock ’N Pies is meaningful to his customers and his employees, even if it’s not the shiniest, coolest place in the neighborhood.
“I’m a creature of habit,” says Harrington. “I like my places. I’ve lived in Santa Monica for 25 years and I’ve been to Rustic Canyon once, okay? And I know they have great stuff!”
“Guess who comes in here all the time, though? The staff of Citrin, before and after shifts,” he adds. “They’re all in here, the general manager, the head waiter, the maitre d’. I know those people by name. That’s the best. To be able to go out back and shoot the shit with the valet guy because I’ve known him for so long, that’s what I want. That’s the cool stuff.”
Rock ’N Pies is open daily in Santa Monica at 1120 Wilshire Boulevard, with hours from noon to midnight. Jay Harrington is a co-star on the CBS show S.W.A.T.