Pepy's Galley, the circa-1960 diner attached to AMF Mar Vista Lanes, lately feels more like a funeral parlor than the friendly neighborhood joint its lifelong customers remember. That's because the nautical-themed coffee shop is facing eviction on June 30, when BowlmorAMF, the country's largest 10-pin bowling center operator, takes ownership of the building and begins major renovations. Those renovations include turning Pepy's Galley into an in-house food service that caters to the bowling center.
Since the news broke a little more than a month ago, neighborhood crowds have been pouring into Pepy's brown vinyl booths and bar stools to show their support and order a patty melt - just $6.95, made with 13 ounces of ground chuck and served on toasted sourdough - or a bowl of the famous house-made chili one last time.
On a recent weekday morning, husband and wife Jeff and Ingrid Harding held back tears while mourning the loss of the restaurant they'd been coming to once a week for the past decade. Ingrid carried a plastic tub to take home an order of chili, which she and Jeff always bring to Fourth of July and Christmas parties. "It's like a death," she says of Pepy's eviction. "They're going to gut it and make something more high-end. There's plenty of those kinds of places. There aren't plenty of these."
Indeed, sitting down at Pepy's faux-wood counter or squeezing into the mirror-paneled corner booths feels a bit like stepping into a time warp. 74-year-old Pepy, for whom the restaurant is named, mans the ship, greeting all guests and making sure they can find a seat - which has been a difficult task with this month's influx of somber diners. Pepy prides himself on remembering what his usual diners will order, without even having to ask.
The restaurant only accepts cash, and you won't find a computer screen anywhere in sight. All orders are written on paper and passed along to chefs in white coats and hats, who continuously slide hot plates of eggs and pancakes to servers from across the counter. Daily specials are scrawled on blackboards above the kitchen, and Pepy's podium is adorned with plaques, including one that says, "The bank doesn't sell food, we don't cash checks."
But the real draw isn't just the food, the decor or the bowling alley's Googie architecture. It's the fact that the restaurant has always been family-oriented. "I told my employees, you are my kids, and our customers are our family. So we treat you like family," says Pepy, whose birth name is Joseph Gonzalez. He's worked in the restaurant industry since 1959, starting out as a busboy, waiter and maître d' at the Hotel Bel-Air, the Beverly Hilton and Chasen's Restaurant, the now-shuttered West Hollywood hangout of Frank Sinatra, Alfred Hitchock and Jimmy Stewart.
He's worked at Pepy's Galley, on a month-to-month lease from the bowling alley, since 1969, when the restaurant was still called Peter B's Galley, named for its then-owner. After Pepy took over the place, he opened two more locations in the 1980s and '90s, both of which are now closed: one on Lincoln Boulevard in Westchester is now KJ's Diner and another, at the Santa Monica AMF bowling alley on Pico Boulevard, is now Oceanside Cafe.
"I never thought they were going to let me go," Pepy says of the eviction, comparing it to the feeling of being on death row. "I'm going to shrink; I don't know what I'm going to do now. I can't get a job at 74, and this is my life. It's all I've ever done." Two of his sons and his brother-in-law also work at the restaurant, which he says provides "gourmet dinner for a coffee shop price."
One of his employees, Milly Pacajo, has been serving at Pepy's for 15 years, which makes her one of the newer additions to the 22-person staff, some of whom have been there for 30 years. She wears the traditional Pepy's uniform: jeans and a black T-shirt with a skull and crossbones (made of a spoon and fork) printed on the back, along with the words: "Pepy's Chili. Eat it & smile." But today she's too emotional to smile.
"It's been very stressful, and so much is going on. I know customers care and they really want to know, but sometimes it's just really overwhelming," Pacajo says. She holds a bachelor's degree in liberal studies from Cal State Long Beach and lives in Paramount with her 2-year-old son, but says the commute to Mar Vista every day is "worth it" to be with the people she considers family. "I feel like this is a family for me, and they're just tearing us apart, and it really hurts," she says. "Especially people that we meet here. Our customers become really good friends."
One of those customers is Venice-based Tim Sullivan, a New Jersey transplant who's found a little slice of home at Pepy's, where he goes about five days a week. "There are some times when it's Thanksgiving and there's nowhere to go, and I go to Pepy's. For $10, I can get a nice Thanksgiving dinner and don't have to feel like I'm a lonely loser," he says, comparing Pepy's to the bar in the TV show Cheers. "You walk in and everyone knows your name."
Sullivan worries that the building's new owner, Bowlmor, which is headquartered in New York City and operates Southern California locations in Pasadena and Anaheim, will attract a different sort of crowd. "The fact that they want to turn it into this 21-and-over hipster place, with go-go dancers and bowling, is like, really?" Sullivan says. "That's what Hollywood's for. In Mar Vista, there's not enough people that would patronize something like that."
Rona BonDurant, another Pepy's regular who attended Venice High in the 1980s and now lives in Culver City, shares the same sentiment. "We're tired of the gentrification. We're being gentrified out of our history, and it's just not good for the Westside. It's not a good fit." Many of Pepy's customers are similarly outraged: More than 3,000 of them have signed an online petition to oppose the eviction.
Bowlmor acquired AMF, Mar Vista Lanes' longtime operator, last year, hauling it out of bankruptcy and merging to form a new company called Bowlmor AMF. In a public letter to the Mar Vista community, Bowlmor CEO Tom Shannon insisted that the bowling alley and food service would remain family-friendly. If the food menu at Pasadena's Bowlmor location is any indication, the new Mar Vista bowling center likely will prepare standard bar fare such as quesadillas, nachos, chicken tenders and hot wings, along with salads, sandwiches, burgers and pizza. There also will be cocktails, beer, wine and Champagne.
Shannon's letter states: "It is impossible to economically maintain the current arrangement with Pepy's Galley, as his rent is a small fraction of market rent and the restaurant space would need close to $1 million in upgrades to bring it to current code." It continues: "We had the right to terminate Pepy's month-to-month lease with 30 days notice and could have done so upon acquiring the property on July 1, 2013. Instead, we let him stay in place, at a small fraction of market rent and at significant cost to us, but can no longer do so as we prepare to renovate the entire facility." Bowlmor did not return phone calls from the Weekly.
Demetrios Mavromichalis, the owner of nearby Venice Grind coffee shop and locally oriented The Wood restaurant, has offered to hire all of Pepy's employees at The Wood - "as many as we can take," he says over an avocado, bacon and cheese omelette at Pepy's. "The heart and soul of this place, at the front of the house, is Pepy," Mavromichalis says. "At the back end is his guys with the chef's hats on, the ones you see making the food. They're rocking that ship over there and grabbing those tickets. I think that's what resonates with people. They've been eating this food for years."
Pepy claims he was one of the first to open a restaurant in an L.A. bowling alley, and he might also be one of the last. Still, he'll be serving chili, dishing out compliments and remembering diners' orders until his last day as captain of the Galley on June 30.
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"It's been a joy working with all these beautiful people here," Pepy says with gratitude. "I'm going to miss them, I hope as much as they will miss me."
An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the restaurant was named for Pepy in 1969; that was in fact the year that Pepy started working there.