If longevity is any indicator as to a restaurant’s success and popularity, then Captain Keno’s comes in at first place as Encinitas’s oldest surviving restaurant, still in the hands of the original owner. Originally built as the Shamrock Café on the Coast Highway 101 just north of Encinitas Blvd., the local drive-in was a popular stop-over for travelers driving between the Del Mar racetrack and Los Angeles, in the days when the 101 was the only road between San Diego and Los Angeles. Later the location became the El Rancho Steak House, until 1966, when it closed it’s doors. After sitting empty for four years, a 30-year-old entrepreneur named Gerry Sova reopened the location in 1970, as Captain Keno’s.
Since it’s beginning, Encinitas locals quickly discovered that Keno’s was probably the most affordable place to eat in the area. In high school, when money was tight, my friends and I could get a burger and fries for less than one buck, and decades later in life, while living in Encinitas and raising a family of five on a budget, I could always afford to bring my kids to Keno’s. Just last month in March, while celebrating my 59th birthday, my three daughters unanimously voted that we would all meet at Keno’s. So in other words, for two generations, Keno’s has always been a part of the fabric of my life.
Keno’s is also a favorite place for social gatherings amongst Encinitas locals such as the monthly breakfast get-together of the Stretch Mark Beach Athletic Club, birthdays and even celebration of life gatherings.
What about the food you ask? If you’re really hungry, the #8 breakfast special is what you’re looking for. Two eggs, sausage, home fries, toast and pancakes won’t leave you broke at less than $6.00. I used to get two of these and a couple of sides, which would feed my whole family for under $20.00! My kids (now grown) favorite is still the Chicken Fried Steak with Mashed Potatoes and Gravy for $4.45.
Dinners range from $2.99 for a spaghetti dinner to $13.95 for a New York Steak dinner. On Saturdays from 5:00 to 9:00 things get fancied up with offerings of a Prime Rib dinner at $12.00 or one pound of King Crab Legs for $17.00, soup and salad included. A couple of my other favorites are the home cooked Hot Turkey Sandwich with Mashed Potatoes and Gravy for $5.95, Baby Back Ribs for $9.99 and the Cod Fish Dinner, deep fried in peanut oil, with choice of Potatoes, and Salad or all the Soup you can eat, and dinner rolls for $6.99.
Gerry has always been an active supporter of our community, hosting pancake breakfast’s along with the fire department, throughout the year, to help raise money for the local schools and Boy’s and Girl’s Club. His good deeds have not gone unrewarded, though! Six years ago Gerry died of a heart attack at his restaurant but was brought back to life by his friends in the fire department who happened to be eating there at the time. So we can put to rest as false, the adage, “No good deed goes unpunished.”
For over 40 years now, Gerry has also been a friend to the underprivileged and homeless in our community, hosting Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, which draw 500 to 600 guests. It’s always been free if you can’t afford it and if you can, just a $3.00 contribution.
“The community really gets behind it”, Gerry tells me proudly. “I get 15 to 20 volunteers that come to help every year, including the churches.”
Gerry’s final words to me were, “I’ve been offered large sums of money for the place… but not for sale! My two sons will take over when I leave.” And lastly, “Nobody’s ever turned down for a meal here, even if they’re broke. ”It just makes me want to conclude by saying, “God bless you, Saint Gerry!”