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Pasadena Dishes Up 2nd Chance for Diner

June 30, 1988|ASHLEY DUNN | Times Staff Writer

PASADENA — For 27 years, Ruby and Booker (Bill) Counsel have been dishing up tasty, golden fried chicken that has made Bill's Chicken in the Bag a city institution.

But it looked as if that institution might vanish last year after the Counsels moved to a new location on North Lake Avenue and neighbors began complaining about litter and the lack of five parking spaces required by zoning ordinances.

Now, thanks to the Board of Directors, the Counsels have won a reprieve.

Under pressure from community groups and customers of Bill's Chicken, the board this week granted the Counsels the necessary permits and exemptions to stay in business.

The decision will be reviewed in one year to make sure the Counsels have complied with requirements to keep the area free of litter and illegal parkers.

"We'll make it work," Ruby Counsel said after the board's decision Monday.

The decision has angered some neighbors, who say the battle is not over.

Seibert Weissman, who owns a nearby office building, said he may sue the city to stop what he said is a steady flow of garbage and illegal parkers.

"We're at the end of our rope," Weissman said. "I'll be in touch with our attorneys."

Bill's Chicken has been a favorite hangout for a generation of Pasadenans and visitors who have grown addicted to Bill's simple dinner of chicken, potato salad and apple pie in brandy sauce.

"A nice crisp crust, a nice flavor and that's it," Counsel said. "I can't tell you the recipe though, because then everyone would know."

The Counsels started serving food in Los Angeles in 1947, when they bought the first of a series of diners.

It was called Counsels Cafe and was chugging along just fine until the couple saw Pasadena. "A friend showed us around and told us this was the place to be," Counsel said.

They haven't left since.

They opened a diner near Green Street in 1950. Eleven years later they moved to North Fair Oaks Avenue and began specializing in fried chicken.

"It just seemed to take off," Counsel said. "I've seen people grow up here eating this chicken.

"Even had a guy from China come in the other day. We never thought it would become like this."

The Counsels sell about 2,000 wings, breasts, thighs and drumsticks daily from 11 a.m. to as late as 2 a.m., when the eatery becomes one of the few bright spots for police officers and workers on the graveyard shift.

"His chicken is known throughout the city," said Denver Miller, the city's zoning administrator, who has been involved in reviewing the Counsels' case. "It's an institution, absolutely."

The Counsels were forced to move their business to Washington Boulevard in 1966 because of redevelopment of North Fair Oaks Avenue, and last year they moved to North Lake Avenue because of a dispute with their landlord.

The city granted Bill's Chicken a business license for its current location in an office building, but officials now concede it was a mistake. Bill's Chicken has no parking and is within 500 feet of another take-out restaurant, which requires special city permission in that area.

A zoning hearing officer approved the exemptions and permits necessary for the business to stay open, but was later overruled by the Zoning Board of Appeals. The Counsels' last chance was the Board of Directors.

At a hearing before the board earlier this month, some business people complained that trash and illegal parkers had made doing business in the area a constant headache.

"I'm not complaining about Bill--I've had his chicken a number of times--but his customers leave something to be desired," Weissman said. "Someone in the city made a mistake, and that mistake has been very costly to me and my family."

Weissman said that the area has been revitalizing over the last few years and that "there is a place for fast food, but in a different location."

But the restaurant's customers, in addition to the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and some city officials said Bill's Chicken is exactly the type of family-run business that the city vowed to support in the economically depressed northwest area of Pasadena.

In an effort to find a compromise, the city considered building a parking lot west of Lake Avenue for the 12 businesses in the area.

But the cost, which would have been shared by the businesses, came to $546,000 for only 21 extra spaces.

Several business people said there was no way they would agree to pay for the lot, and even Director John C. Crowley said the proposal was like having "six engines pull a caboose."

After a one-hour hearing Monday, the board unanimously approved the necessary permits and exemptions and agreed to continue studying parking options.

But even with the approvals, Bill's Chicken may not be around too much longer.

Ruby, 60, and Booker, 65, say they will probably retire in the next few years and leave the cooking and headaches to someone else.

The Counsels have three sons. "Maybe some of the kids will take it over," Ruby Counsel said. "I hope Bill's Chicken will continue."

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