clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
A collage with Jolly Jug and a sandwich on a white plate.
Jolly Jug opened in 1946 at the corner of Lambert Avenue and Peck Road in El Monte.
Lille Allen/Eater

Filed under:

Find the ‘Southland’s Most Honored Sandwiches’ at This 77-Year-Old El Monte Diner

Time moves slowly, but food arrives quickly at the original Jolly Jug

Driving down El Monte’s Peck Road, between the 10 freeway and the batting cage with a giant golf ball painted with baseball stitches, the array of restaurants boasting vintage signage is impossible to miss. From Taiwanese noodles to churros and horchata to Vietnamese food, the independent restaurants on this strip can satisfy a variety of cravings, but one business on the corner of Lambert Avenue — the iconic Jolly Jug — is particularly eye-catching, with its giant, retro sign advertising the “Southland’s most honored sandwiches.”

Margaret Chinn, a 70-year-old immigrant from Hong Kong, is at the helm of Jolly Jug, which opened in 1946 and was originally owned by a Jewish woman named Esther Levy. When Levy was ready to sell the restaurant in 1994, her realtor solicited potential buyers by mailing letters to local businesspeople without disclosing the restaurant’s name. Chinn’s husband, Pete, a now-retired CPA, negotiated and purchased the Jolly Jug by year’s end.

After reading the news of Jolly Jug’s ownership changing hands in the Los Angeles Times, people started coming from all over California — San Diego, Riverside, and Pasadena, says Chinn, under the assumption they would be having their last true Jolly Jug meal. Chinn says that she lost her voice during that first month from assuring so many worried patrons that the menu would stay the same. Chinn kept her word and left the menu unchanged for nearly three decades, only adding tacos, burritos, fried rice, fried wontons, and Chinese vegetables with grilled chicken to the lineup. Chinn hasn’t changed the appearance of the place either, deciding to “leave everything old” because “people [wouldn’t] feel comfortable” if the restaurant were renovated. The signage out front — the bust of a crowned, cheerful man with a mustache and a green bow tie smiling atop the restaurant’s name and its claim to fame, which many people come to photograph, and which would be expensive to restore — hasn’t changed either.

A vintage diner Jolly Jug restaurant on Peck Road in El Monte.
Jolly Jug restaurant on Peck Road in El Monte.
Three sandwiches at a wood table at Jolly Jug restaurant in El Monte.
A trio of the ‘Southland’s Most Honored Sandwiches.’
Tiffany lamps and beige booths at Jolly Jug in El Monte.
Tiffany lamps and beige booths.

Aside from Jolly Jug’s proud reminders of its popular sandwiches, the restaurant offers no pretensions. With its menu of comfort food, its laid-back atmosphere, and retro decor, it is casual dining reminiscent of time spent at grandma’s house. It welcomes the relaxed, meandering conversations that close friends have over french fries and beer. Diners sitting underneath Tiffany lamps in the booths may overhear sisters trying to remember the names of all the members of the Brat Pack while getting distracted by a song on the radio. (Chinn keeps the restaurant’s radio dial on K-EARTH 101.) Friends casually chat while waiting for takeout orders, saying, “Thanks, Mija,” to the server once the plastic bag-wrapped stacks of Styrofoam arrive.

The dining room has brick-and-brown panel-covered walls and a relatively low ceiling. Small booths in the middle of the room, as well as on the surrounding walls, including underneath windows adorned by dark green curtains, offer comfy, vinyl seating. On the other end of the restaurant — beyond the entryway room with its claw machine and framed adulations on the walls — is the bar, with small rectangular tables, accompanying chairs, beer advertisements, folk art, and a flat-screen TV. This area is dimmed in the daytime and glows up neon at night as patrons crowd the bar, talking over the music. The famed restaurant critic Jonathan Gold named Jolly Jug the best French dip with thick gravy in the LA Weekly — the 2010 review is framed and hanging on a wall in between the entryway and the bar.

The restaurant’s foldout menu is the size of a road map. It offers hearty all-day breakfast; entrees of steak, beef, shrimp, and chicken; salads; 100-percent beef burgers; chili dishes; cold plates served with rye toast; vegetarian options; an array of sides; and desserts. Multiple cultures are represented, with options like loco moco, spicy noodle soup with beef, and huevos rancheros. A suggestion of adding a bloody mary to one’s order appears in a corner of the breakfast section of the menu. The grilled cheese, gooey and crispy, is a hit with the kids. Yet, the Jolly Jug’s three bestsellers are the beef French dip, the pastrami sandwich, and the corned beef Reuben.

The bar at Jolly Jug in El Monte.
The bar.
Knick-knacks on display at Jolly Jug in El Monte.
Knick-knacks on display.
Corned beef Reuben at Jolly Jug in El Monte. 
Corned beef Reuben.

At the bar, one popular drink called Lick My Chile is made with cucumber vodka, sweet and sour mix, Sprite, and Tajín. Other favorites include micheladas and drinks made of Jack Daniel’s or Tito’s.

This assortment of food options parallels the variety of eateries on the strip on which the Jolly Jug sits. Friends dining together have so many options that a meal consisting of a starter, main dish, side, dessert, and drink can be a hodgepodge of cultures. A fun alcoholic drink may be tempting, but soda and bitters, coffee, tea, and juice are also available.

The seismic shift in dining that other restaurants experienced as a result of the pandemic hasn’t affected Jolly Jug. When restaurants had to close their doors temporarily Jolly Jug did too, but for only three weeks because of its hybrid status as both restaurant and bar. Heeding the guidance from the county, Chinn and her team bought three heaters for the patio, a relatively new addition, to warm patrons until the establishment’s 2 a.m. close time. Even in freezing weather, regulars continued to hang out. “We are really fortunate to be busy during the pandemic,” she says.

The employees working during Esther Levy’s time stayed through the changing of ownership, until their eventual retirements. Chinn and her team remain dedicated to the business, and the restaurant still doesn’t experience a lot of staff turnover. Jolly Jug’s reliable menu, charming ambiance, and familiar faces turn diners into a kind of family. Since 1946, seven generations of a family have come in, according to Chinn. She has witnessed regulars who have gone from dating to getting married to having a baby. And now that baby is grown up and having a baby themselves. Patrons have become so familiar with the Jolly Jug crew that they invite them to their families’ parties, weddings, and funerals. First-time patrons may even hear a bar patron singing to a familiar song at the top of their lungs, and feel so comfortable that they are compelled to sing along.

Iconic signage at Jolly Jug in El Monte.
Iconic signage.
Cocktails served inside at Jolly Jug in El Monte.
Cocktails served inside.

Twinkle lights and wooden bar stools at Jolly Jug in El Monte.
Twinkle lights and wooden bar stools.
Quirky decor inside Jolly Jug in El Monte.
Quirky decor at a corner booth.
A trio of sandwiches on wooden table top at Jolly Jug in El Monte.
Come for the sandwiches, stay for the hospitality.
Jolly Jug’s laminated menu.