California Restaurant Association honors Tony Palermo of Tony P’s Dockside Grill

By Joe Piasecki

Tony P and staff celebrate their Best of the Westside winning streak

Hang out in Marina del Rey long enough to know your way around and you’re bound to meet Tony Palermo, the namesake of the harbor’s most popular family restaurant. Tony P’s Dockside Grill isn’t trying to be the fanciest place in the marina, but the outgoing husband and father wants you to remember it as the friendliest.

Palermo and business partner Dan Ringwood headed west from Detroit for a chili cook-off and never looked back, with Palermo working at the Hard Rock Café and Ringwood at a five-star restaurant on Melrose Avenue until they opened a restaurant called Teasers on Third Street Promenade in 1985. In 1996 they converted the former Charlie Brown’s steakhouse into a second Teasers, and in March 1997 Ringwood suggested they rebrand it Tony P’s — partly because Palermo makes friends so easily, but also because “everybody thought we were a strip club.”

Over 22 years, Palermo has been chairman of the LAX Coastal Chamber of Commerce board, continues to serve on the Marina del Rey Convention and Visitors Bureau board, and has received top community service awards from the chamber as well as the Playa Venice Sunrise Rotary Club, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Venice, and the Westchester Family YMCA. He also spent 14 years on the state board of the California Restaurant Association and two as president of its Los Angeles Chapter, which on Friday honors him with its Elizabeth Burns Lifetime Achievement Award at Hotel Casa del Mar.

The Argonaut: What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned about the restaurant business?

Tony P: One is knowing that you don’t know it all. Another is that you’re only as good as your last meal. … You haven’t lived until somebody didn’t get their order right. Some people just don’t take that well. You’ve got to serve the same meal at 11:30 a.m. as you do at 10 o’clock at night. Consistency is why I think we’re still around. We’re not a frou-frou restaurant. We’re not the latest craze. We put out a good product seven days a week.

And the people side of things?

You have two customers: the customer coming in the door and your coworkers, which are your inner customers. If your inner customers are not happy, that portrays out to the customers coming in the door. If everybody working here is having a good time, it shows. More than 60% of our employees have been with us over five years, and that’s pretty hard to say in the restaurant business. Billy [Rodriguez], our chef, has been with us for 35 years. Denise [Palano-Travis] has been with us 19. We have bartenders who’ve been here 20 years, and cooks who came with the building.

I like to think of us as like a neighborhood joint in a touristy area … and as far as I know, we’re the only working owners. We’re here seven days a week. But it’s not really like going to work. It’s like I’m going to my other house. Which is kinda cool. … You have to enjoy busy busy. If the kitchen is cooking 25, 30 checks at a time, it’s a well-oiled machine and everybody having fun doing it — man, that’s a high you can’t touch. [laughs] Makes us all a little weird, I guess.

What’s your most popular dish?

Our No. 1 selling item is fish and chips. We make the batter four times a day so that it’s always nice and crunchy. It’s just a great product.

Aren’t you a little young for a lifetime achievement award?

I couldn’t agree more! I’m 61 years old, man; lifetime achievement, that’s it? … We’ve been here so long it’s hard to imagine us not being here. We’re talking about building a bar underneath the patio that’s bicycle-oriented, so you could ride up on the bike path and park your bike right there.

The award is partly for public service. How long have you been doing fundraisers?

Since we opened Teasers. To be a neighborhood restaurant you have to get involved in the schools, the churches and the nonprofits. We host a lot of parties for organizations because we give back to them. … Sundays through Thursdays we give 25% back to schools and 20% back to nonprofits, minus tax and tip, and that’s really worked out. The schools that are organized, they’ll have their kindergarten and first-grade teacher come in on a Monday, second and third grade on Tuesday … and then the families who want to eat with the teacher come in and the school makes like 1,500 bucks in a week. Beats the hell out of selling cookies.

We teach kindergarteners how to make pizza. We do it every year for St. Anastasia and Visitation [Catholic schools]. The kindergarteners are the best because everything’s “wow.” We take them in before we open the restaurant. I put cartoons on all the TVs in the tavern and tell them we watch cartoons all day, and they’re like “wow.” We put little chef hats on them and march them through the kitchen, then out on the patio we teach them how to make pizza, and they get to eat their pizza. We’ve been doing that for 16 years. I had some kid tap me on the shoulder and say “Hi Tony, I was in the first class for pizza,” and he’s like 6’5. It’s pretty fun.