George Thomas, owner of the Santa Clarita staple Route 66 Classic Grill, is closing his doors after deciding to retire and sell his business. All week long, Thomas has been saying his goodbyes to local customers and working his final hours at the restaurant.
Almost 30 years ago, Thomas first set his mind to becoming a restaurant owner after retiring from a 25-year career with the Los Angeles Police Department.
“I thought the restaurant business would be great and my boys were both in high school and I thought that would give them a job,” said Thomas.
The initial idea came to Thomas after he traveled to Santa Maria to watch his son’s soccer game. After the game, Thomas and his family became hungry, and they began to look for local restaurants that would be open late. After a while, a person told him about Hudson’s grill.
Hudson’s Grill was a famous franchise for its 1950s retro look that was successful during the late 1980s to early 2000s. When Thomas entered the Hudson’s Grill in Santa Maria, he thought, “Well, this is kind of cool. We should have one of those in Santa Clarita.”
After some time seeking advice on how to open up a Hudson’s Grill franchise, the Lancaster franchise owners advised Thomas to open his location with a similar theme but solely under his name. At the time Hudson’s Grills were beginning to slowly close locations, so he concluded it wasn’t a smart business decision.
After finding the perfect location, which was where Soledad Elementary School once stood, he broke ground to begin the building process of what is now known as Route 66 Classic Grill. At the time Thomas wasn’t aware that the location he purchased near the intersection of Sierra Highway and Soledad Canyon Road would soon become a Santa Clarita hub with food and entertainment for over two decades.
The building construction process took about eight to 10 months, and the inside took eight months to fully decorate, said Thomas.
Inspired by Route 66, the historical 2,400-mile route from Chicago to Southern California, and with the help of a very good friend and longtime set designer George Tuers, Thomas began to slowly add unique details to the interior.
“He took me under his wings and helped me pick all the memorabilia, laid out everything, the colors, fabric for our booths,” said Thomas. “For eight months we worked together while he was a prop man. He would sneak out of work and come over here. We’d go to an antique shop somewhere in Santa Monica or the city of Orange. We went everywhere.”
Upon entering the restaurant, the retro neon-colored lights serve as a blast from the past. When looking closer, certain memorabilia pays homage to iconic Route 66 sights that have appeared in numerous pop culture mediums such as television and film.
There are replicas of old-school gas pumps, checkered floors, a jukebox and a classic car inside the location so customers could fully dive into the experience while they enjoyed their meals.
Route 66 Classic Grill wasn’t only known for its food and 1950s theme but also for its community events. In its prime, it became a preferred location to host local events and celebrations — including bike nights, car shows, homecomings for active military members, fundraisers and competitions throughout its 25-year history.
The events often brought in hundreds of people from different parts of L.A. County to Santa Clarita. Thomas said that some events would take up the whole parking lot with live music, food and drinks.
Thomas said that the success behind Route 66 wasn’t always solely his. With many different events, people in the community would volunteer their services to make each celebration epic and unique.
Many individuals would volunteer their services for car and bike shows, local politicians would host their election parties at Route 66 and in recent years they also hosted a “Vegas Strong” community event and fundraiser to support local individuals who witnessed and were affected by the 2017 Route 91 shooting.
Route 66 sought to epitomize American culture. You could order yourself a burger and milkshake while appreciating the history of America and what it once was, and witness Harley-Davidson motorcycles and classic Corvettes when local community events were held.
“This has been my legacy. I’ve been involved in this for over 25 years,” said Thomas. “We are all like one big family … It’s been fun.”
“Will Rogers referred to Route 66 as the mother road and it meant new beginnings to so many people,” said Thomas. “A lot of people from the East Coast would take Route 66 to start a new life and I thought, ‘Well that’s perfect. I’m retired from the police department, unfortunately I’m getting a divorce,’ and it was kind of like a new beginning for me and a new career.”
This is how Thomas concluded what the restaurant would be named and the theme he and Tuers would focus on to bring the restaurant to life.
Thomas said that he does now know what the future holds for Route 66 Classic Grill. Over some unfortunate setbacks and back-and-forth with the company that is purchasing the business, he is not aware if they will leave the place as it is with its decorations and events or if they will make changes.
He hopes that the new management will leave it as is and maybe one day he can come back as a customer and enjoy a milkshake with his four grandkids.
Route 66 Classic Grill remains open as of the publication of this story and is expected to remain open for a few more days until Thomas announces the final date. Until then he is available for those who are interested in stopping by and saying farewell.