You've Been Served
The Kettle. Simmzy’s. Tin Roof Bistro. You know their restaurants, but how well do you know the Simms clan? Meet the South Bay’s first family of food.
- Written byJamie Reidy
While building a restaurant empire, they took on city patio laws, hooked a few big-time chefs and still found time to cook a mean burger. Three generations strong, there’s no stopping them now.
Full disclosure: I have awoken hungover on the sofas of many of the subjects of this story. But I digress. It all starts with The Kettle.
Arthur Simms took ownership of the restaurant on Christmas Day 1975. Nearly 40 years later, his purchase is a gift that keeps on giving to both the clan and the city of Manhattan Beach.
The Kettle may not be as hip as her progeny, but she is the foundation. Without her, there is no Simmzy’s or Tin Roof Bistro, no M.B. Post or Fishing with Dynamite.
“She’s ‘the mother ship,’” says Scott Simms, one of the co-owners and son of “Arthur J.,” as he was known. “Great places serve more than good food. They build a sense of community and make guests feel at home.”
Tom Simms, older brother and co-owner, adds, “Manhattan Beach has been so good to us. What a beautiful place to do business.”
Built in 1973, their restaurant anchors the downtown area. In a GPS age, its eponymous rooftop decoration still serves as a directional landmark. Dude, do you see The Kettle? OK, we’re three doors up …
Veteran staff members are easily spotted inside the 24/7 eatery, as a whopping one-fifth of the staff have more than 20 years of service. Scott says with pride, “Manhattan Beach residents have literally grown up in here. We’ve got three generations of families eating breakfast together on weekend mornings.”
And those locals are currently being served by the third generation of Simms Family restaurateurs. Sarah, Scott’s daughter, oversees the menu as the food and beverage director, while Tom’s sons, Chris and Mike, a.k.a. Big and Little Simmzy, have both logged countless hours there.
“My dad started bringing me into the restaurant with him on weekends when I was 8 years old,” Chris recalls. “He’d put me to work bussing tables. Then later, I’d get to work the cash register, which was a huge deal!”
That early experience helped shape his expectations. “Work hard. I saw how the staff reacted to my dad’s working on weekends; they appreciated it. He got that from Grandpa AJ: ‘If you take care of people, they’ll take care of you.’”
Sarah Simms remembers watching her father, Scott, dote on customers. He’d bring her into The Kettle and sit her down at the north end of the counter, where she would see the same people every weekend.
“Even then, I could see how important ‘locals’ are to our business. Later, I got to see how important we are to them.” Regulars’ devotion has been expressed numerous times in no uncertain terms. “People write letters if we change anything!” she says, shaking her head in amazement.
Accordingly, if the staff decides they need to tweak a recipe or—gasp!—remove an item from the menu, they do so gradually. “Evolution, not revolution” is a mantra both Chris and Sarah repeated.
But wouldn’t that strict adherence to the past stifle a member of Gen Y? Apparently not. “How great is it that we created something people care so much about?” she asks.
And even if something is no longer on the official menu, “we offer old menu items if people order them,” Scott is quick to mention. “Our purpose here is to take care of the regulars.”
That commitment even applies to people out of state. Sarah frequently ships their famous honey bran muffins across America for customers jonesing for a fix.
Chris, and three years later Mike, moved across the country to attend Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration, which has a renowned program in restaurant management. Their early desire to get into the food game did not mirror that of their father’s, who backed into the family business.
“We couldn’t get jobs!” Scott admits. His brother adds, “I told Arthur J. I’d only work until an engineering job opened up. Forty-three years later, here I am,” Tom chuckles at himself.
Sarah, like her older cousins, knew she wanted in and graduated from Cordon Bleu in Seattle. (She also writes a food blog at lafemmeepicure.com.) Two of Scott’s other children work for the family business outside the South Bay: Rebecca is director of marketing for Lazy Dog Restaurants and Matt is a manager at Simmzy’s in Long Beach.
After college, Chris returned to The Kettle from 2000 to 2002, while also planning his own establishment—which would become The Lazy Dog Café in Torrance. He and several Loyola Marymount University graduate buddies managed to find ways to entertain themselves in the South Bay at night. (After I relocated to MB in late 2000, I moved into an apartment below Chris’.)
Living on The Strand, he became well-known on the volleyball courts of El Porto. His fiancée, Keri, lived in Hermosa Beach and for a time waitressed at OB’s—yet another family member with South Bay restaurant experience. They married in 2003 and are raising their three girls in Manhattan Beach.
His younger brother, Mike, an avid surfer, splashed into town in 2005, following a four-year stint in Napa Valley. This provided me with another bachelor Simms son with whom to while away the hours. He even offered to set me up with his new roommate, an attractive doctor who found him through Westside Rentals.
Two weeks later, I asked for the introduction.
“Yeahhhhh, that’s not an option anymore.” My wingman did, however, invite me to his and Sonia’s wedding in 2008. They live in Manhattan Beach with their two girls. (How “South Bay” is it to marry somebody you met on Westside Rentals?)
More importantly for MB residents, he made two upgrades at The Kettle: He installed the restaurant’s Wi-Fi and urged his Uncle Scott to add the beloved tortilla chicken soup—then only available on Sundays—to the everyday menu.
The latter, alone, should cause all of the South Bay to celebrate Mike’s birthday annually. But he was only beginning to impact his new hometown.
Having thrown famous wine-and-comfort-food parties in Napa at the tin-roofed farmhouse he rented (you can probably see where this is going), he devised a plan for a restaurant featuring a casual, approachable design and attitude melded with upscale food, wine and service. He found in Anne Conness a fun-loving chef who shared his passions.
In 2007, he and his father, Tom, found a great location in the northwest corner of Manhattan Village Mall. Unfortunately, a parking lot dispute between the landlord and the mall owners prevented the Simms family from opening Tin Roof Bistro on time.
The months dragged on. Rarely before in the history of local government has its slow-grinding gears so greatly benefited its constituency. Beyond frustrated after yet another delay, Mike exited city hall and began knocking on doors in downtown MB, asking if anyone wanted to sell. Fortunately, the owner of Ebizo did.
The Simmses quickly bought the little Japanese place on MB Boulevard. One problem: They didn’t have a clue about the concept. Thankfully, Chef Anne had already concocted a delectable cheeseburger.
Chris had recently begun brewing beer in his garage, a process that required a great deal of brothers’ taste tests—much to their wives’ dismay. It didn’t take long for craft beers to enter the concept for Mike’s stopgap joint.
“Then we figured out the ‘beach’ theme, and the rest fell into place,” he clarifies. As is a Simms custom, he is understating things; their humility is inspiring. And annoying.
“Grandpa AJ pushed that on our dad and uncle, and they pushed it down on us,” Chris Simms explains. “Stay humble. Just take care of the people—staff and guests—and they’ll take care of you.”
Mike’s next move took care of all of the South Bay, literally changing the face of Manhattan Beach forever. Walking past Hennessey’s on a cold and rainy night, he was shocked to see the patio packed despite the weather.
“That made me realize people love sitting outside no matter what,” he says. “A that point, I decided every seat in Simmzy’s had to offer a view of blue sky.” But that would necessitate an open-air patio, banned by an LA County health code requiring barriers between the kitchen and the outside.
Mike’s desire for blue sky views seemed less likely than a blue moon, since it would require a change in local laws. Thanks to tremendous help from County Commissioner Don Knabe, however, LA County passed a new regulation allowing operable doors to open up a restaurant’s facade.
So the next time you enjoy a cold, adult beverage as the ocean breeze kisses your face inside Hennessey’s or Shark’s Cove or Brew Co. or M.B. Post or The Strand House or Circa, raise a toast to Mike Simms.
And thank the attorneys who dragged out the Manhattan Village Mall parking lot lawsuits for a year! In July 2009, three months after Simmzy’s debut, Tin Roof Bistro finally opened. Many an eagle-eyed guest has pointed out that the roof is not tin but terracotta. “Hopefully, we get it right for the next one,” Mike says with a sheepish grin.
For their next project, Mike, Tom and Chris joined forces to support an outsider for the first time. “With TRB, we started with a concept and then found a location,” Mike says. “With Simmzy’s, we had a location and then threw together the concept. And with M.B. Post, we started with a person.”
Mike first met David LeFevre, who won his Michelin star at downtown Los Angeles’ Water Grill, in Napa in 2003 through a mutual friend, but they did not stay in touch. Several years later, “Simmzy” read a feature article about the chef, called him and was delighted to learn the chef lived in Hermosa Beach.
Drinks quickly ensued, and the two became close friends. (After getting married, Mike pawned me off on David. The chef and I have finished off an evening or two at The Kettle. Accordingly, I asked Sarah to crunch some numbers on drunken, late-night orders. She dutifully reported that the most popular items are the hot spinach artichoke dip and the buffalo panko chicken tenders.)
Well aware of Chef David’s culinary wizardry, the Simms trio offered him the opportunity to launch his own concept. “We were just happy to be able to support such a talented guy,” Chris explains.
Probably not as pleased as the chef, who quotes none other than Abraham Lincoln in sharing his appreciation: “I’m a success today, because I had a friend who believed in me, and I didn’t have the heart to let him down.”
And maybe not as thrilled as the residents of the South Bay, who voted M.B. Post “Best American Contemporary” restaurant in Easy Reader’s 2013 reader’s poll. (Note: Tin Roof Bistro was runner-up.)
More awards probably await Chef David as he and Tom, Chris and Mike prepare to open Fishing with Dynamite, a seafood spot two doors north of Post. “We’ve got a great neighborhood, near the ocean. It needs an oyster bar!”
Arthur J., the Simms family patriarch who got it all started, would likely agree. How would he react to his children and grandchildren working together in their five establishments in Manhattan Beach?
“He’s got a big smile on his face that we are still in this beautiful community that we love and that has been so good to us,” says Scott. “And he’d be proud that we have a symbiotic relationship.”
Scott notes that The Kettle is one of the four original sponsors of the city’s annual holiday fireworks. All of their restaurants also support Mira Costa High School and numerous other local charities.
“Three generations of his family serve three generations of his customers,” Tom says proudly. “My father would be thrilled.”