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Santa Maria Sun / Commentary

The following article was posted on August 26th, 2014, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 15, Issue 25 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 15, Issue 25

Farewell to Alex Bar-B-Q

It's last call for a Central Coast legend

BY ARIEL WATERMAN

There’s a sadness that comes with the closure of legendary gathering places. Such iconic places as Delmonico’s in New York City, the Las Vegas Sands Hotel and Casino, Los Angeles’ famed Cocoanut Grove, and Hollywood’s Brown Derby have all passed into memory. Four years ago, Shell Beach’s own Old Vienna Restaurant and Beer Garden closed its doors after more than 40 years.

Now another historical treasure, Alex Bar-B-Q, is shutting down its memorable oak-pit barbecues on Aug. 31. The place has been grilling tri-tip steak, ribs, halibut, salmon, and more over an oak-wood fire, slathered with their famous, secret recipe sauce, and serving up cold beer, local wines, and cocktails since 1943. On Sunday, Aug. 31, the restaurant’s owners Kimberley and John Shockley will call the final round in the bar, a favorite of locals and visitors to the Central Coast for more than 70 years. It’s indeed the end of a legend, with its share of wonderful stories, including my own.

According to Kimberley Shockley, there’s an old tunnel that goes underneath the building with an entrance from the beach and, from the right vantage point, you can still see it. It was purportedly used to smuggle liquor in during Prohibition. The old inn is said to have been a brothel.

“There are doorbells around the building, believed to have been for the clients,” she said.

Effie McDermott’s historical account of the inception of Alex Bar-B-Q can be found in her book Images of America: Pismo Beach. She tells how Alex Angelo came from Greece and settled in the area. In 1943 he purchased the Shell Beach Inn, Restaurant and Lodge from C.C. Durham for $425 and renamed it Alex Shell Beach Inn and began featuring oak-pit barbecue and cocktails.


MESSY, BUT DELICIOUS
Ariel Waterman’s grandson, Samuel, enjoyed a mouthful of Alex Bar-B-Q ribs in 2009.
PHOTO BY ARIEL WATERMAN

The building that houses the restaurant was constructed on the Pacific Coast Highway in the 1930s. The building hasn’t changed much, and its welcoming pink and green neon roof and cocktail glass sign has long been a landmark for travelers on Highway 1.

Ron and Norma Ritter eventually bought Angelo’s recipes and carried the tradition of great barbecue, homemade food, and friendly service into the 21st century, with nary a microwave on the premises! Mark Adam became the new owner of the business in 2003, and continued to provide delicious hand-cut steaks and ribs covered in that remarkable sauce Alex Angelo created more than 70 years ago.

The building, however, was sold by Angelo to San Luis Obispo District Attorney Dan Helford and a Mr. Isengard. They eventually sold the building to corporate entity Compass Health, which also owns the Ventana Grill in Shell Beach and the Custom House in Avila Beach. And herein lies the reason Alex Bar-B-Q will soon be no more.

According to Brian Kreowski, an attorney with Shell Beach Law Group, the real property—that is, the building—was sold to a different owner than the restaurant business. The owner of the restaurant has title to the recipes and name of Alex Bar-B-Q, but not the real estate, which is now owned by Compass Health Inc.

The current owners of Alex Bar-B-Q, the Shockleys, took over the restaurant-end of the business three years ago, and became tenants of Compass Health in August of last year.

“They bought it for a price I was not willing to pay,” said Kimberley Shockley. “It is my understanding they are putting a fancy steakhouse in.”

She added that she’s owned the Alex Bar-B-Q name and product for three years and had big plans, but Compass is moving in a different direction.

Kreowski is also a historian who’s been on the board of the San Luis Obispo History Center and is its past president of eight years. He’s been involved with number of preservation nonprofit endeavors, including the Dinosaur Caves Project.

He explained that the building housing Alex Bar-B-Q would require some fixing up, and it potentially faces adhering to modern, more strict rules than were in place when it was first built in the 1930s—but a historic landmark status could allow some entitlements to be grandfathered in.

Shockley told me the new owners had better be prepared because the place is also said to be haunted.

“You can hear people all the time,” she said. “I hear people upstairs when I’m there in the early morning at 4 a.m., but no one is there!”

Ghosts or not, what will be lost is the sense of community that Alex Bar-B-Q creates: “You never know who you’re going to run into at Alex,” Kreowski said. “There is a fear that this is going to go away. It really has been the ‘Cheers’ of the community. It has been a family venue, kid friendly. We’ll see what comes next, but it’s hard to imagine it can rival what’s there now.”

“We are closing Aug. 31, but until then we’ll still do what we’re known for: good ribs, steaks, and drinks,” Shockley said. “We plan to party and enjoy the community until the end.”

My own memories of Alex Bar-B-Q are fond, and I will truly miss the place, but my grandson will miss it even more. We took him there a few days after we had brought him to live with us. My husband was about to order him a hamburger when the little guy’s eyes grew round as he saw a plate of barbecued beef ribs carried past our table.

“DanDad!” he lisped, “I want those, please!”

Hubby was reluctant, but I ordered him a child’s portion. When the two dinosaur-sized ribs with a side of fries was set in front of him, our little man dug right in. By the time he was finished, he was covered elbows to eyeballs in that famous sauce! It has been his favorite place to eat out ever since.

The following year, my spouse and I were married. We hadn’t really planned an elaborate rehearsal dinner, but everyone wanted to get together for a meal. I was in a panic as I had no venue, so I gave Alex Bar-B-Q a shot. On a busy Friday night, then-owner Mark Adam quickly put tables together, and the staff expeditiously and cheerfully served my family of 25—and fed them well! Everyone still talks about that meal.

Shockley believes that everything happens for a reason.

“I’m going to take a breather,” she said. “And for the last few days, we’d love people to come for the last call here at Alex.”

I believe that, for the spirits said to haunt Alex Bar-B-Q, and for those of us who have our own special, fond memories of the place, the party will never truly end.

 

Ariel Waterman believes in spirits, both drinkable and haunting. Send your remembrances of Alex Bar-B-Q to Executive Editor Ryan Miller at rmiller@santamariasun.com.