Found in the fryer: A missing piece of Westwood’s history

by Gavin Meichelbock

Westwood lost one of Los Angeles’s greatest institutions.

Over the decades, many notable restaurants have shut down and subsequently left Westwood. The fast-food chain restaurant Five Guys closed down in 2012, Falafel King shut its doors in 2019 after serving the UCLA community for 50 years, and It’s Boba Time, one of the many boba places in Westwood, has recently shut down with plans to be replaced by Raising Cane’s. But none of these losses hit nearly as hard as when Original Tommy’s World Famous Hamburgers left Westwood.

For current UCLA students who do not remember the closing of Tommy’s, it is most likely because they were not even born yet. Tommy’s used to have a shack in the parking lot of what is now the location of Fat Sal’s in Westwood back in 1979. Unfortunately for the Bruin community, Tommy’s started struggling in 1997 when In-N-Out opened in Westwood and has been gone ever since.

This once great institution that reached worldwide acclaim as LA’s quintessential fast food in countries like Sweden, Australia and Japan, now finds itself fading into the background of the LA food scene. While love for Tommy’s continues to be passed down through familial generations, it is unknown to most Southern Californians and Bruins alike. So what is Tommy’s? Why is it so special? And why should UCLA students care?

Nestled between Koreatown and Chinatown right in the beating heart of Los Angeles, Tommy’s got its start in a small shack on the corner of Beverly and South Rampart Boulevard. Founded by Tom Koulax in 1946, Tommy’s quickly established a name for itself by the 1950s and became known as Southern California’s “Word of Mouth” hamburger. By the 1960s, Tommy’s became so beloved by the LA community that Koulax had to expand his operation. Koulax bought out the entire northeast corner and opened up a second serving location next to the original shack.

After serving the community and families of every ethnic background for just over a decade, people became hooked on Tommy’s. To this day, Tommy’s is still offering up its simple menu of hamburgers, hot dogs, tamales and french fries, as well as breakfast sandwiches and burritos, all drowned in their world-famous chili, 24 hours a day. Everything is made to order with high-quality ingredients from their 100% all-beef patties and hot dogs, double thick slices of cheese and freshly chopped onions and beefsteak tomatoes.

The look of the burger stand is equally as iconic as its menu. Each and every Tommy’s location has a sign adorned with the logo of the original sack. The restaurant’s red-and-white color scheme, hard plastic tables and metal chairs have ingrained themselves in LA’s fast food culture. Employees outfitted in simple white polos, baseball caps and red aprons, as well as the “watch while you wait” service, give the restaurant a laid-back SoCal flair. Because Tommy’s employees know how deliciously messy their food is, the restaurant has paper towels in place of basic napkins. While many copycat restaurants such as Tom’s Number 5 Chiliburgers, Tommie’s Hamburgers and Big Tomy’s all tried to capitalize on this success, ultimately, Angelenos knew there was only one Tommy’s.

This loyal following saw the expansion of Tommy’s in the 1970s, opening its second location in North Hills, California in 1971. Other subsequent Original Tommy’s locations opened up in Burbank, Long Beach, Canoga Park, Santa Monica and Hollywood throughout the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Coincidentally, In-N-Out was rapidly expanding around the same time, having 21 locations by 1979 and 100 by 1994.

When Tommy’s came to Westwood in 1979, it was nothing more than a tiny walk-up hut, not unlike the Fat Sal’s that has gone on to take over this location. The shack was so small that it only had room for a flat-top stove and, hence, only served burgers. This location could not even sell fries since there was no room for fryers. Despite this limited menu, Tommy’s should have provided the perfect late-night bite for UCLA students, but unfortunately, it never did. For one reason or another, Tommy’s never found a home among the wider UCLA community, leaving the Westwood location often deserted. Although it managed to stay open for another 20 years, following In-N-Out’s opening just up the street in 1997, it quickly closed up shop before the end of the century.

This sadly became a recurring trend for Tommy’s, as it has been unable to keep up with the rapid expansion of other fast food chains such as In-N-Out. Their Santa Monica location was replaced by a Starbucks in 2014, one month from its 20th anniversary at that location. Universal CityWalk had a Tommy’s that closed down in 2015 after being open since 2002. Just last year in 2023, the only Tommy’s location in San Diego shut down. The putrescent history of Tommy’s is depressing. What once was a world-famous word-of-mouth hamburger is now only a whisper. The YouTube channel First We Feast actually refers to Tommy’s as “LA’s secret handshake,” noting how unknown it has become.

Adding to this heartbreak is knowing the UCLA community had a chance to preserve this piece of LA’s history, but neglected to do so — almost as if we, students at the quintessential LA university, turned our backs on the quintessential LA hamburger stand. Due to the actions of bygone generations, there is currently no love between Tommy’s and Bruins. Evidence of the Westwood location is incredibly hard to find, only existing in Facebook threads, one 1997 Daily Bruin article and the fond memories of some alumni. The Tommy’s website does not even mention ever having a shack in Westwood. The website actually goes as far as shouting out our cross-town rivals, the University of Southern California, as loyal Tommy’s fans, crowning it as the better school.

Despite the dwindling number of locations, Original Tommy’s is still devoted to feeding the communities of Los Angeles after 78 years of service. As UCLA students, it is our job to uphold and carry on our city’s rich history. While it is unlikely Tommy’s will ever return to Westwood, Bruins both old and new should go out and experience this beloved part of our shared city’s history.

Featured Image Courtesy of Walter Cicchetti –

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