Tompkins says goodbye to Westchester

The last beer was poured and the final burger was served at Tompkins Square Bar & Grill on Saturday, November 17 when the bar closed after 14 years of being a popular Westchester hangout.

“I have to say there has been a river of love from this community the last few weeks that I’ll take to my grave. It’s surreal,” said Billy Tompkins who owned the bar along with his brother Jeffrey. “You don’t know until you know. It just lets me know that we did it right, and we’re leaving Westchester better than how we found it. We’re so proud of what we’ve done here.”

When news of Tompkins’ closing began to circulate, it was hard to believe; after all, the place was regularly packed and topped Best Of lists as a favorite neighborhood bar, but for the brothers it was time to close this chapter and focus on family and new opportunities.

After years of working as a DJ in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, Billy Tompkins would make his way back to L.A. After successfully owning and operating a handful of bars, he set his sights on the Fireside, a once busy dive bar that had seen better days. Tompkins would call the bar once a month for a year to see if it was for sale before the owner finally said “yes.” In those early years, the bar faced every problem in the industry and statistically should have failed, according to Tompkins, but the two brothers worked hard to build up their clientele and make the place a neighborhood destination once again.

By the time Tompkins acquired the bar, the kitchen had been closed for a while and the place wasn’t known for its food. When hungry patrons started inquiring about snacks to accompany their drinks his first night as new owner, he managed to whip up some chips and salsa to the delight of his new guests. He knew a large part of the success of the place would be serving great food, and he did not disappoint.

Before Tompkins closed, they were serving more than 200 plates a day, a tremendous feat for a small bar, and became known for such dishes as the Monster Burger and braised short ribs.

“We wanted a reputation built on beers and burgers. Ninety-five percent of people ask for a menu and say, ‘I heard the food is great here.’ We’re a restaurant that looks like a bar. It’s really been about the food. It’s been my signature here,” said Tompkins who loves to cook and personally shopped for all the food that was served.

When the time was right, the Fireside would close for a month while superstar bar builder, Greg Stewart, would come in with a team working nearly 24-hours a day for 30 days straight to relaunch the bar as Tompkins Square and the rest is history.

“I’m eternally grateful for what they did,” said Tompkins.

While he is proud of the reputation that the bar has built over the last 14 years as a favorite watering hole, a great spot to buy a beer and a burger and the place to be for trivia night, he may be most proud of his work in giving back to the community, often under the radar and without fanfare.

“It’s important to recognize what they’ve done for the community,” said long-time patron Eileen Tennant-Grant. “The amount of effort they’ve put in doesn’t just stop at the door. There is so much community work they’ve all done, which is part of why we love them.”

For the last nine years, Tompkins has helped feed the volunteers at the LAPD Winter Wonderland Toy Drive, and on what will be his ten year anniversary of helping this month, he has vowed to feed everyone in attendance as a way of giving thanks. Then there’s his volunteer work helping feed veterans and first responders, as well as working with local organizations like the Elks Lodge, where he’s a member, and the Airport Marina Counseling Service (AMCS).

“I don’t know any other way to say ‘thank you’ to the community than through community service. There’s no other way to tell a community how much you love them than to serve them,” said Tompkins. “It’s our way of expressing how much this community means to us. We’ve gone above and beyond what a tiny little restaurant can do.”

One particularly memorable night for Tompkins was the AMCS Spring Gala held in April. He donated a paella dinner party, that he would cook for, for the live auction. Much to his delight, the bidding got heated and his donation became one of the most prized items of the night.

“To watch $10,000 get raised in seconds is something I’ll never forget. Giving back is at the core of what we do everyday,” said Tompkins. “Service to the community should be mandatory.”

So with all that success and the fond memories, why is Tompkins closing? The answer lives back in Rosarito Beach. With the dream of always heading back to Mexico, an offer from the Cinco Group, which owns the hip bar serving Oaxacan-style food across the street, was too good to pass up. Now Tompkins is readying for a new adventure, albeit one that he has a lot of experience with: opening Tompkins Square Rosarito Beach, hopefully in time for Spring Break 2019. The new bar and restaurant will be located in the Festival Plaza Hotel a block from the beach, which he calls a “Times Square location.”

“We’re going to be doing what we’re most proud of–selling our American culture of burgers, French fries and beer,” said Tompkins. “We’re going to be slinging a whole lot of burgers and everyone in Westchester is invited to the grand opening.”

Tompkins is confident that the new restaurant/bar concept that pops up in his old place will be fantastic.

“We’re elated for these guys. We really feel they’re going to do great here. We’re asking our fan base to give them a look,” said Tompkins. “They have big shoes to fill, but we wish them all the success in the world. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be chasing my Baja dream.”

While excited about the next chapter in his life, it’s still a bittersweet experience to shutter a popular business that has been part of your life for over a decade and meant a lot to the people who call it their neighborhood bar.

“Thank you for a whole lot of dirty dishes and support. I truly will take the love this community has given me to my last breath, as well as my brother Jeffrey,” said Tompkins choking back tears. “We are eternally grateful.”

What’s next?

The Cinco Group hopes to open The Manchester in mid-2019 with a focus on refined American food and cocktails in a hospitality-driven, innovative, yet approachable neighborhood joint. Stay tuned for details!

Posted December 2018.