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After Burning Down, West L.A.’s OG Chili Burger Shop Is Back Open

[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]here is no shortage of Tom’s, Thomas, and Tommy’s burger joints in Los Angeles that serve L.A.’s classic chili. The messy, filling, and the old-timey dish is emblematic of this city and has survived the test of time and food trends that come and go. But on the westside of L.A., there’s only one Tom whose chili reigns supreme, and that’s Big Tomy’s on the corner of Pico and Sawtelle Boulevards. 

From the day it opened in 1982, customers in West L.A. have been staining their nails orange in their futile attempt to eat every glob of that rich brown soupy ambrosia as it spills over their fingers with each bite. The burger specialist fuels gardeners in the morning, desk jockeys on lunch break, kids after school, and bar hoppers needing to quell their alcohol-filled stomachs at 3 AM—alike. 

After 35 years of nonstop 24-hour service, it came to a screeching stop on the morning of April 6th, 2018, when the kitchen caught fire. While the foundation survived, the beloved restaurant was forced to close. An “opening soon” sign hung on the boarded-up windows giving the neighborhood hope, but it never came soon, and the neighbors stayed waiting. “This town doesn’t feel the same without Big Tomy’s,” one Redditor posted a year later, “please reopen soon.”

The neighborhood waited two and a half years, but the “opening soon” sign finally came down, and the doors opened on October 15th of 2020. “I actually came here about a month ago,” a loyal customer tells L.A. Taco. “I was excited to see it finally fixed up, but it still wasn’t open yet. I hope it’s still good.” To his satisfaction, the chili burgers are just as indulging and as sloppy as he remembered them. “Man, I missed these,” said another customer on another afternoon. 

In a neighborhood stricken by change, the corner burger shack was one of the few remaining landmarks of a wholly changed Sawtelle. With its back against the 405, the luxury apartment developments crept closer as the recently built metro line cut through the neighborhood. Traffic on that stretch of Sawtelle became almost impenetrable, and Little Osaka up the street developed into Japantown. For this neighborhood, the reopening of this burger joint meant more than just having a quick stop to get your lips dirty; it means a part of local culture and history would survive the embers of change. 

John Livanis, the owner of Big Tomy’s, is a witness to these changes over the years. He’s an older man with a kind demeanor. He greets you with a heavy accent from under a bristled mustache that Mr. McFeely would be proud of. As he wipes down a glossy new table outside and walks over to the nearest trash bin, he tells L.A. Taco in a proud tone, “You see that wall inside?” pointing at a wall full of framed pictures,” I put up the history of Sawtelle on there, so people remember.” 

One of these frames holds a copy of a document titled, “Sawtelle’s most famous girl.” It serves as proof of Norma Jean Baker’s history, a young girl who, from the age of 11, grew up on 11348 Nebraska Avenue before becoming the supermodel we all know as Marilyn Monroe. Another frame holds a copy of Mrs. Wands’s old newspaper article, known as “Mother of Sawtelle.” Livanis points out Pio de Jesus Pico’s picture, the Afro-Mexican, the last governor of California under the Mexican government. “Did you know that’s why this street is called Pico?” asks Livanis. 

Although the burgers are back, the restaurant isn’t impervious to change either. The red and white paint has been replaced with yellow and brick. The booths have been painted brown, three bold letters crafted with newspapers hang over them spelling “YUM,” and bronze ceiling fans hang over the tables. A wide comic illustration of a cheeseburger, fries, and a Pepsi now hangs across from the register where an old Tom Cruise poster holding a pool cue used to look over customers’ shoulders. 

But while the restaurant may have new clothes, the faces behind the register are the same, the horseshoe entrance remains intact, and the food hasn’t changed. The menu is now displayed across six television screens hanging over the cooks’ heads. The same breakfast burritos, steak sandwiches, pastrami, and that nostalgic rich smell of chili still permeate the kitchen. The only thing new on the menu is a charbroiled chicken. 

When Livanis speaks of Big Tomy’s, he speaks of it as if it were his home. The people working inside are not just his employees, “they are my family,” he tells us. “When it burned down, I paid them for two months out of my pocket.” When asked him why it took so long to reopen, he shies away from the question. “Problems” is all he murmured while cleaning the outside of a trash bin. 

“My customers are back, and they’re happy,” Livanis tells us. “A lot of customers found out it was open, and they’ve driven from as far as San Diego and Whittier. They tell me my dad was a gardener, and he always used to bring me here." It's a testament to the long-lasting impact a small burger stand under a freeway can have on generations of people. 

With the pandemic, Livanis says, “It’s hard, I just want the restaurant to survive, I don’t care to make money as long as the expenses are paid.” 

With chili stained lips, when asked if he had anything else, he wanted to add. Livanis responds, “Yes. Thank all you people, the neighborhood. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. You come and support us. Hopefully, we stay here another 35 to 36 years.” 

Big Tomy’s is open 24 hours a day again. 11289 W Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90064

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