Joe Wilcox has ruled the kitchen at the Bull Pen in Redondo Beach for the better part of 40 years, but if you ask him if he’s considered the executive chef of the place, he shrugs.
“I’m just Joe,” he said.
Wilcox is in his seventies, and twinkling eyes and a joyous smile suggest a life well-lived.
The Bull Pen has been a Redondo Beach institution since 1948, when it was founded by the late the late Cliff and Mona Miner. Their children now own it. It has hopped locations twice, finally landing at its current RivieraVillage spot in 1978.
Wilcox has been an integral part of the journey.
He started as a busboy when he was in high school. One day a cook was a bit worse for the wear and Wilcox found himself manning the grill.
“I wasn’t a cook, I was just a teenage busboy,” Wilcox said. “After that, I just sort of stayed and learned. It was just one of freak things.”
“The cooks were all short-order cooks, really fast. I learned from them. They just threw me in there.”
Though Wilcox has done brief cooking stints in other kitchens, he has always made his way back to the Bull Pen.
“I went to work for the Marriott hotel, but I didn’t like it. It was too corporate,” he said. “Then I worked for the Palos Verdes Country Club. But I came back here. This place is family.”
“We do everything that’s not good for you,” he said with a laugh that lights up his face. “Baked potatoes, French fries and all that stuff.”
Original owner Cliff Miner is credited for the original recipes, including the beloved Bull Pen burger. Wilcox sees his role as keeping the food faithful to its history.
“We still get our meat from Newport Meat Company and it’s the best available,” Wilcox said. “Everything is homemade, all the dressings and the gravies.”
“We have a 14-ounce New York steak that people ask for all the time. It’s not even on the menu, it’s a blackboard special. But it’s an old favorite. Has been since we’ve been here.”
Some patrons argue, however, that it’s the 10-ounce coulotte steak, a top sirloin, that brings them back. One woman at the bar on a weekday afternoon recalled a time when her friend’s coulotte leftovers fell on the floor and out of the takeout box. They were dancing after dinner to the live music the Bull Pen hosts on the weekend. “She was just going to throw it away,” she recalled. “I said, ‘Give it to me! I’ll take it!’ and I picked up the steak right off of the dance floor.”
The Bull Pen draws in a loyal following. Its dim lighting, leather booths and longtime staff make the restaurant a cherished piece of Redondo history. But jovial, witty bartenders and live entertainment on the weekends keep the place feeling young and fun.
Wilcox still does all the prep work and makes the sauces.
“I’m an old guy now,” said Wilcox. “They’ve been real good to me here, letting me work part time now. It’s a good family place. It’s all about the people.”