A Friendly Takeover at Lou's Grill

Times Staff Writer

As a landmark, it's hardly on a par with the Hollywood sign visible in the distance, but for 34 years the orange neon words "Lou's Quickie Grill, Good Food" have been a beacon for the film and TV crowd.

Now something's missing.

"It's enough to break your heart," the owner of the tiny diner on Santa Monica Boulevard said as he gently set the dust-encrusted neon word Lou's on the lunch counter that for almost three decades has held plates of his corned beef sandwiches and Quickie eggs Benedict.

In truth, though, the story of why Lou Shulkin removed his name from the Quickie Grill sign last week is more heart-warming than heart-breaking--especially in this age of hostile takeovers and cutthroat ethics.

At the end of this month, Shulkin and his wife, Anita, will give their lifelong business--no strings attached--to Barbara Knox, a waitress who started washing dishes there a year or so after it opened. The neon word Barb's will replace Lou's on the sign; the bills will start coming to Knox.

But the old and new owners make one thing clear: The Quickie Grill will still be in the family, even though Knox is a black Baptist and the Shulkins are white Jews.

The Knox and Shulkin family histories first became intertwined in 1954. Lou was working at a deli and Anita was occasionally waiting tables when the couple decided to pool funds with a brother-in-law and open a 10-stool lunch counter on the corner of Santa Monica and Highland boulevards. After six months, the Shulkins assumed full ownership.

About the same time, Barbara Knox graduated from high school in Oklahoma City and moved west to live with an aunt. An employment agency sent her to the Quickie Grill.

Five days a week, Knox paid her quarter and rode the Pacific Electric Red Cars from her aunt's home in South Central Los Angeles to Hollywood. She recalls holding onto the railing with one arm and swinging joyfully in the morning breeze. At the grill, though, Knox would hide her head under the counter as she scrubbed the dishes.

"Oh, was she shy!" Anita said last week, watching as Knox set a "Mintz-burger" (a half pound of ground beef grilled and served on a French roll) before a customer in the bustling cafe.

"I was afraid of white people," Knox explained.

For a black person from Oklahoma City, it was a legitimate fear--a fear the Shulkins understood.

"We came from small towns in Nebraska and South Dakota, where Jews have horns and tails," Anita said. During World War II, Anita's family owned a restaurant, and they found swastikas painted on their door.

When Knox first started washing dishes at the Quickie, the grill also employed another waitress.

"We didn't like each other," Knox said. But one day the waitress made it clear that the reason she disliked Knox was the color of her skin.

"Lou flipped his cork," Anita recalled.

"We threw her out," Lou said, "and the three of us stayed. We've been here ever since."

Like a Daughter

"Barb and I used to talk about bigotry and prejudice," Anita said. It seemed to draw them closer, and over the years, the Shulkins came to view their waitress as a daughter. The Shulkins' grandchildren call her Auntie Barb.

For her part, Knox says: "They were like family to me."

Twenty-seven years ago, the Quickie moved down Santa Monica Boulevard to its current location near Orange Street. Drawn by the family atmosphere of the place, the customers from nearby studios followed. When Knox and the Shulkins try to list the celebrities who once came in or still come in, they sound as if they're ticking off relatives on a family tree: "Orson Welles . . . Martin Sheen, Richard Crenna . . . Bill Cosby, Herb Alpert . . ."

"James Garner, he's my favorite," Knox said.

"The President, Ronald Reagan, he sat right there," Lou added, pointing to one of the Grill's four tables.

Mistaken Identity

Knox recalls the time they mistook Buddy Ebsen, who was staring in the Beverly Hillbillies, for a real bum.

"Naturally Lou was going to feed him," Anita said. "Lou never turned anyone away."

The grill is bigger now, with a full dozen orange swivel seats at the long Formica lunch counter. The fat pastrami sandwiches that once went for 45 cents now sell for $3.35 and coffee no longer costs a dime.

But five days a week the Quickie still fills with the aroma of sizzling "Mintz-burgers," and the regulars come in--as much for the good company as the good food.

Hal Smith, a 71-year-old character actor, has been a loyal customer since the grill opened at its original location. In the years he's been coming in, things have changed on the other side of the Quickie Grill's window, he said. Male and female prostitutes have staked out much of Santa Monica Boulevard; gangs fight bloody battles outside and there's a bullet hole behind the "D" of the "Good Food" sign.

Inside, though, the Quickie is pretty much as it was in the '50s, when Smith played Otis Campbell, the Mayberry town drunk, on "The Andy Griffith Show."

In 1982, the authors of "Fantastic Dives--A Guide to L.A.'s Best Hole-in-the-Wall Dining" wrote: "The service is delightful and fast, the decor pleasantly dull, and the clientele an entertaining blend of cops, movie people and local Hollyweirdians."

Still, last June, when Lou Shulkin told Knox that he and his wife had decided to retire at the end of this month and sign the Grill over to her, Knox had mixed feelings.

"It was like a dream come true, " she said. "I started praying every night: 'Lord, make it true, grant me the Quickie Grill.' "

At the same time though, she worried: "I didn't think I could make it. I thought 'When Lou leaves, the customers will leave' . . . So I went around and talked to all the customers, and they said, 'Don't worry, we love you as much as we love Lou.' They said they'd stay."

Over the years, people have made "some tremendous offers" to buy the Quickie, Anita Shulkin said. "But money was never the most important issue in Lou's life." Now, when they retire, "We ain't gonna be rich, that's for sure," Anita said. But she has no doubts they'll be happy living on Social Security and savings.

And the Shulkins have no doubts that Knox can make the grill succeed. "When Lou's busy in the back room, she runs the whole place as it is," Anita said. And Lou is teaching Knox's husband Warren--who spent his life as a dining car waiter on the Southern Pacific--the precise details of creating all the breakfasts and "Delicious Jumbo Size Sandwiches" listed on the weathered orange menus.

Of course, Knox does plan to make a few changes.

"The Quickie Grill, the way it is now, this is Lou's personality," she said, gesturing at bare walls that look as if they're the same off-white they were three decades ago. "I want my personality here. I'm going to paint the walls, put in some plants, window shades. I'm going to soften it a little."

"You do whatever you want, honey," Anita said, with just a trace of wistfulness in her voice.

One thing Knox doesn't plan to do, though, is hire another waitress. "I could never find another me to work for me," she said, wiping the counter.

Anita winked. "If she sweet talks me, I might come down and help a few hours a week," she said.

Knox smiled her warm smile. "That would be nice," she said.

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