A man rides his horse into a bar, ties up his horse and orders a shot of tequila for each of them.
It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke. It’s funny because it actually happened.
“Yes, that was an attorney named Cliff Hicks,” Jeff Earle, owner and proprietor of the Original Red Onion in Rolling Hills Estates. “He rode his horse right through the dining room.”
Jeff Earle is now the third generation of the Red Onion. And when a restaurant has been around for half a century, you have some pretty great stories.
“We used to do a caveleros ride to brunch on Sundays,” Earle said. “One of my earliest memories is being four or five years old and seeing a bunch of horses in the street without riders and men slumping off horse. They had been to our margarita brunch and attempted to ride back. Riders and horses separated at some point.”
Earle may have a lifetime of restaurant tales but following his father and grandfather into the restaurant business was not originally part of his life plan.
“I started at the restaurant when I was 13 years old in the kitchen, but just as a summer job,” Earle said. “I have a graduate degree in history. I worked for President Reagan. I was involved in politics for quite a long time.”
In 1994, he ran for the state legislature in California. Losing the election was the impetus for Earle’s return to the Red Onion.
“I lost by a very slim margin and that really facilitated my purchasing this restaurant and staying in this business,” he said. “And I don’t regret it a bit. Especially with what’s going on in Sacramento these days.”
Earle bought his father out in 1995.
“The transition was interesting,” Earle said. “It’s funny because my dad worked for his father and he could see things he wanted to do and change, and my grandfather wasn’t receptive so my dad opened his own restaurant.”
“And then I saw things I wanted to change and my dad always said, ‘If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.’ So we came to an understanding and I bought him out because I wanted to take the restaurant to another level.”
While Earle didn’t want to deviate too far from the traditions of the Red Onion, he saw some areas for growth.
“I wanted to create healthier options for people,” he said. “We have fresh salads, fish, and fruits now, things that weren’t on the menu in the ‘60s. We have new side dishes. It was just rice and beans in 1966.”
Earle has also developed a thriving catering business. It started out of the back of his car. Now he and his staff manage events of anywhere from 30 to 500 people.
“It’s affordable catering but we do it with really nice touches,” he said. “We have copper chafing dishes, huge grills. We do barbecues on the beach. We bring our Mariachis, and there’s the smell of meat cooking on mesquite. It’s all about creating an atmosphere.”
“My dad and I had some different ideas but the buyout was amicable and we stayed very close until he passed away.”
Robert “Bart” Earle died in 2011 at the age of 84. He had opened nine restaurants and sold his chain to Host International in 1973. Part of the stipulations of the deal was that he kept the Palos Verdes Red Onion, his favorite.
The Host-operated restaurants are long gone now. The Original Red Onion just celebrated its 50th birthday.
Jeff Earle attributes the success of the restaurant to a simple concept and an allegiance to the community.
“This is not a restaurant where you require a chef from a cooking school,” Earle said. “Most of our cooks work their way up from the bottom. It’s a price-dressed, high volume restaurant and we serve what we call Mexican-American comfort food.”
The basic formula for the recipes came from Earle’s great grandmother, Catalina Castillo. His grandfather, Harry Earle, was inspired by those recipes when he opened the first Red Onion in Inglewood in 1949.
“My great grandmother actually lived long enough for me to know her,” Earle said. “She didn’t speak a word of English and I always thought of her as kind of a frightening figure when I was a kid. But she was a very sweet woman.”
Castillo was from Sonora, Mexico and that is why the Red Onion’s cuisine is considered Sonora. Much of Arizona and Sonora cuisine overlap, both based heavily on wheat, cheese and beef.
“Customers’ favorites are the simplest things,” Earle said. “The tacos, the tamales…People just crave the beef and cheese burrito.”
“It’s not nouveau Latino cuisine but it’s the kind of food people crave. We are not looking to win great culinary awards. We are looking to satisfy people.”
Another fail-safe way to satisfy people is to keep prices low, which Earle is committed to doing.
“I own the land and building here so I don’t pay rent, which means I don’t have to jack up prices. Most places that offer food like ours around here charge twice as much.”
“And we see the same people five, maybe six times a week. And the families. And, of course, all the family events. We’ve become an important part of people’s lives. They hold birthday and anniversary parties here, weddings and even funerals.”
Generations have grown up inside and outside the restaurant.
“I have 42 long term employees,” Earle said. “A lot of their kids work here, too, so we have gone through generations of employees. There’s very low turn over.”
Earle lives in the community he serves. He has a house in Rolling Hills as well as a house in La Quinta when he wants to escape to the desert.
“I like the arid climate,” he said. “I used to go out there with my grandfather as a kid. But unless I’m out of town, I’m here at the restaurant every day. It’s a business you can’t be away from. “
“I’m not sitting back and collecting money,” Earle laughed. “I wish I were. But there is always stuff to be done.”
Though the Red Onion remains one of the most successful independently owned restaurants in the country, Earle’s most recent success occurred outside of the restaurant.
Last spring, he wrote a letter to the Rolling Hills Estates City Council asking that the short stretch of Silver Spur Road where the Red Onion is located be renamed after his father. The council agreed unanimously, approving the first street in Rolling Hills to be named in honor of a person.
“It’s going to be called Bart Earle Way,” Earle said. “My sister and I think it’s funny because it was always his way or no way.”