Take a trip back in time at old school Captain Keno’s

As I was looking at the specials and the menu at Captain Keno’s, I was kicking myself for not including them in my value column a few weeks back. This place should win the value gold medal for its crazy low prices and hearty portions.Before I get into that though, I’d like to go into a brief history of this Encinitas landmark. It’s been around more than 70 years and was popular back in the day as a stop off point for Hollywood types going to and from Mexico.There is a great story about John Wayne breaking up a fight in the parking lot, and then buying a round of drinks for everyone at the bar. Current owner Jerry Salvo bought the place in 1970 and it does not look or feel like much has changed since then.

The sign outside of Captain Keno’s shows only a portion of what they offer. Photo by David Boylan

There are five sections to Keno’s, the bar area, a lounge connected to the bar, a huge dining room, tables near the kitchen and another dining area off of that. Over the past few years, the bar has been rediscovered by the surfer/hipster set and it’s not uncommon to see a cool cat in his mid-20s sporting an ironically hip mustache next to an old guy with that same mustache he’s been sporting it for years.

The people watching at Keno’s is part of the appeal as the mix of characters is all over the map. I shot a movie scene at Keno’s a few years back at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning, thinking we would have the bar and lounge area to ourselves. We arrived to find about a dozen people at the bar either getting an early start or still going from the night before. It was an entertaining shoot to say the least. I could devote an entire column to the bar area as every time I’ve been there I have left with a good story. I should note that you won’t find lower prices on drinks anywhere.

So let’s start with the breakfast menu. There is nothing on it over $5 and there are some very substantial options.

A pork chop and eggs will run you $4.49 and most choices are in the $4 range. It’s nothing fancy, just good, solid traditional breakfast fare at prices that rock.

I stopped by for dinner on a recent Sunday night around 6 p.m. and the place was going off. The bar was full and there was a line to order. I’m pretty sure the restaurant portion was being handled by one guy taking orders, serving and busing tables. He seemed to be handling it, though I would not call the service speedy.

That did not seem to matter to much as we started off with the self-serve soup, which was pretty darn good clam chowder and was included with our meals. I ordered the chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes and country gravy with sausage for $3.45. This was a huge freaking portion and yes, I said $3.45. Are you kidding me?

My friend got the pork chop dinner that came with three nice size chops, fries, tomato and onion slices and two rolls for $7.49. On a previous visit, I had the ribs that were a gigantic portion and came in at $9.99. I was very skeptical going into that meal, as I tend to do ribs mainly at places that specialize in them. I was pleasantly surprised with Keno’s ribs, which would have cost at least $20 or more at another restaurant.

Some other menu items of note are the Keno burger for $2.89, a hearty bowl of chili for $3.29, spaghetti for $2.99 and 21 shrimp for $4.45. They also have prime rib night and a crab leg feast on Saturday night for $17. I’ve yet to check either of those out but I’m assuming there must be substantial portions of both.

There is nothing farm-to-table about Captain Keno’s and there probably never will be. But that’s OK; they do things on their own terms and are not changing for anyone, which is the appeal of the place. They don’t try and be hip or retro with new things made to look old, this place is the real deal. As Leucadia slowly gentrifies, I really hope Captain Keno’s stays exactly the same.

Find them at 158 N. Coast Highway 101 and (760) 753-4555.

Lick the Plate can now be heard on KPRi, 102.1 FM Monday-Friday during the 7pm hour.
David Boylan is founder of Artichoke Creative and Artichoke Apparel, an Encinitas based marketing firm and clothing line. Reach him at david@artichoke-creative.com or (858) 395-6905.

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