It took an act of God to make a major change at Gus's Barbeque.
Until the Oct. 1 earthquake forced its closure, the South Pasadena restaurant had offered virtually the same menu since three immigrant Greek brothers named Tripodes opened it in 1946. The upholstered booths and Formica table tops dated from the last remodeling in 1951. Two waitresses worked there for more than 30 years. An animated neon sign featuring little running pigs and chickens had flashed in front since 1951.
Even the customers had been the same for decades.
"I think the whole area misses Gus's," mourned Les Balk, owner of a nearby hardware store who said he lunched there almost every weekday for more than 40 years. "If you wanted your friends, all you had to do was go there."
"People still shove notes under the door asking us to tell them when we'll reopen," said Peter Tripodes, whose father and two uncles founded Gus's and named it for the oldest brother. Tripodes' brother-in-law and co-owner, Dino Lappas, said: "We've had hundreds of calls. People stop me everywhere and say, 'When the hell are you going to open?' "
Although they intend to reopen, the partners have not resolved a difficult dilemma.
Earthquake codes require that the damaged unreinforced masonry building at 800 Fair Oaks Ave. either be extensively remodeled or demolished. But the owners want to keep Gus's Barbeque the same.
"We are going to come back at the same location, but there's a lot of soul-searching," Lappas said. "We don't want to lose the formula that has worked for the family for many, many years. Whatever we do, we want to capture that same feeling, to make sure it still works.
"When people walk in or drive by, we want them to say, 'My God! It's still there!' "
Inside, the earthquake broke one glass and one bottle. Little sauce dishes remain in a perfect pyramid at the front window, above burners that for decades barbecued more than 1,000 pounds of ribs a week. The restaurant's interior looks as if it could re-open in a minute.
But outside, fissures score the 13-inch-thick brick walls. Some parts of the two-story building, which was built in 1922, look ready to crumble. Two upstairs apartments were evacuated on Oct. 1, and although the owners may enter the building, the public may not.
Tripodes and Lappas said that, after many studies by engineers, they may favor demolition and the rebuilding of a near-replica of the restaurant.
However, if the owners demolish and rebuild, the structure will have to conform to new building codes established after 1946. These require a setback from the street and more parking spaces.
The sign also appears doomed, City Manager John Bernardi said. An ordinance requires smaller sizes and prohibits signs that protrude above the rooftop, as Gus's does.
Bernardi, a fan and frequent diner at Gus's, said the city might grant variances that would permit Gus's owners to rebuild according to the original plan.
"They have a building that was destroyed by an act of God," Bernardi said. "We find ourselves suddenly thrust into a situation that has never occurred to us. We had a devastating earthquake, and now we find our codes are too hard-nosed. So they would have to go through an appeal process for variances."
Lappas said: "That sign is now considered an art form."
In fact, Tripodes said, the entire restaurant might be seen that way.
"In the past few years we've gotten a lot of people who said, 'You know, I've passed this place for the last five years and never came in.' Maybe that's because the style of the restaurant is 'in.' They come in and say 'My God, we didn't even know you guys existed.'
"Whether we resisted change or just never caught onto it, I'm not sure. Our type of restaurant is popular now. We're old-old, real old. As compared to new-old."
To them, new-old describes the trendy diners that try to capture the ambiance of the '50s. Tripodes said developers from other cities have "come here just to look, maybe try to see how it works, try to copy it. So far nobody's been able to do that."
The touches that made Gus's a success, the men said, included sauces they made daily from secret family recipes. One family member was always there, all the employees pitched in where needed and, perhaps most important, Gus's stayed small. At most its 11 booths and 10 counter seats could accommodate 50 at a time, forcing diners to wait for more than an hour on busy nights.
"We never expanded because we were content," Tripodes said. "Gus's always made money. Why tamper with success? I've seen people expand until they went broke. Bigger doesn't necessarily mean better. If we got much bigger, suddenly we'd need a lot more help."
Gus's had a crew of 13. Mayrelou Prince had been a waitress since 1946 and Ginny Staples worked there off and on from 1957. A cook who recently left to start his own business began work at Gus's in 1964, and the dishwasher worked there for 12 years, the owners said.
After the earthquake, all the employees "were gobbled up immediately," Tripodes said. "Other restaurants asked us for them. Most of them say they want to come back."
The menu listed such oldies as Denver sandwiches, pineapple and cottage cheese salad and grilled ham steak with pineapple ring. The barbecued spareribs, at $8.45, were the second most expensive item, topped by the New York steak at $10.95.
"We made only minor changes maybe every couple of years, except for raising prices," said Tripodes, who started working at the restaurant as a teen-ager.
"Sometimes people would say they hadn't been in South Pasadena in 20 years, and they came into Gus's and it's exactly the same," Tripodes said. "Same help, and some of the same customers. Their history was there. You don't see that in very many places any more."