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OBITUARIES / Barbara Knox, 1933 - 2008

Waitress was given L.A. diner when owners retired

January 12, 2008|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles diner's big-screen moment is fleeting in "Pretty Woman," yet Barb's Quickie Grill shared much with the fairy tale of a film.

While actress Julia Roberts plays out her Cinderella story in the restaurant window, a wise-looking Barbara Knox can be seen nearby. Knox already knew something about Hollywood-worthy endings -- she received the diner as a gift after working there 33 years as a waitress.

Knox owned the grill about a dozen years before the onset of Alzheimer's disease forced her to close it about 1999. She died Jan. 1 at the Amberwood Convalescent Hospital in Los Angeles of complications from the disease, said her husband, Warren Knox. She was 74.

"Nobody in this day and age gives somebody else a business," Barbara Knox told Parade magazine in 1988.

But that was exactly what Lou and Anita Shulkin, founders of Lou's Quickie Grill, did when they retired in 1987. With their children financially secure, they worried about Knox, the shy black woman from Oklahoma City who had spent most of her adult life working for the Jewish couple from the Midwest.

When Knox started out at Lou's in 1954, the year-old grill at Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland Avenue also employed another waitress.

"We didn't like each other," Knox said in a 1987 Los Angeles Times story.

One day the waitress made it clear that she disliked Knox because of the color of her skin. Anita Shulkin once recalled that her husband "flipped his cork."

"We threw her out," Lou Shulkin said in 1987, "and the three of us stayed."

They came to view their only waitress as a daughter and bonded over conversations about bigotry and prejudice during the unfolding civil rights movement. The Shulkins had her over for the Jewish holidays, and Knox invited them to her church and family gatherings.

Knox repeatedly said, "They were like family to me. They treated me like their own."

In 1960, the grill moved west on Santa Monica Boulevard to near Orange Drive, and customers from nearby studios often filled the dozen orange swivel seats.

"James Garner, he's my favorite," Knox said in 1987.

She recalled that they once mistook Buddy Ebsen, who was then starring in television's "The Beverly Hillbillies," for a homeless man and nearly gave him a free meal.

More recently, Denzel Washington and Drew Barrymore were regulars, said Warren Knox, a former dining car waiter who came out of retirement to serve as his wife's cook.

When the Shulkins told Barbara Knox they were going to sign the restaurant over to her, "it was like a dream come true," she said in 1987.

"I started praying every night: 'Lord, make it true, grant me the Quickie Grill.' " Yet she worried: "I didn't think I could make it. I thought, 'When Lou leaves, the customers will leave.' "

The regulars assured her, "You're gonna make it -- we're gonna see that you make it," she recounted in The Times soon after assuming ownership.

By then, Knox had replaced the dusty orange "Lou's" on the Quickie Grill sign with a bright green neon "Barb's." But she largely left alone the menu featured in the 1982 book "Fantastic Dives: A Guide to L.A.'s Best Hole-in-the-Wall Dining."

Sandwiches named after Shulkin grandchildren -- the Mindy J Super Sandwich (grilled ham, turkey and Swiss cheese) and Nicky's Special Combo (salami, pastrami, roast beef and Swiss cheese on an onion roll) remained.

The Knoxes added daily specials such as a once-a-month gumbo that was so popular with customers they would call in days ahead of time to reserve some.

Knox was born Aug. 15, 1933, in Oklahoma City and moved west to live with an aunt after graduating from high school.

At another Los Angeles restaurant, she met Warren Knox, and they eventually settled in Pasadena after marrying in 1963.

In addition to her husband, Knox is survived by four stepchildren, seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. The Shulkins died a number of years ago.

Knox did bring a few decor changes to the grill, which served "an entertaining blend of cops, movie people and local Hollyweirdians," according to the "Dives" book.

"The Quickie Grill, the way it is now, this is Lou's personality," Knox said in the Times story. "I want my personality here," she said, and planned to paint the walls and add some art to "soften it a little."

With just a trace of wistfulness in her voice, Anita Shulkin had responded, "You do whatever you want, honey."

valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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