By Alex Wilson | Photos by Viktor Budnik
Tony’s Pizzaria in Downtown Ventura has been a local institution since Johnny “Tony” Barrios established the restaurant in 1959.
Barrios had Ventura roots growing deep, stretching back to Chumash ancestors as well as the Ortega family that built Ventura historical landmark Ortega Adobe during the rancho era before California was even part of the United States. He himself grew up in Downtown Ventura, raised in a home just four doors down from the beloved Thompson Boulevard pizzeria – one of the city’s first.
He joined the U.S. Army at the age of 18 and became friends with a New Jersey native. That friend helped shape Barrios’s destiny by teaching him to make the type of pizza popular on the East Coast at the time. Pizza, and enjoying the company of people he served it to, became a focus of his life upon returning to his hometown after earning a Bronze Star in World War II.
At the time of Tony’s passing nearly a decade ago at age 87, the pizza joint was popular with locals for a quick slice after catching waves or walking the beach at nearby Surfer’s Point. But the venerable, open-air restaurant is brighter and more festive than ever before, now that his sons Bruce and Tony Jr. own the establishment.
The family has big plans for the lot behind the restaurant, purchased from the city of Ventura a few years back, which will mean more space for diners to spread out and an enhanced capacity for live music and dancing.
Recipe for Success
Bruce Barrios said the original location of Tony’s Pizzaria was about two blocks away on Figueroa Street near Mission San Buenaventura, and was an immediate hit.
In fact, according to Barrios, the current location at the corner of Thompson Boulevard and Figueroa Street wasn’t built for pizza at all — it was a hamburger stand. When that building came up for sale in 1964, Tony Barrios saw the potential and moved Tony’s Pizzaria to its new home, where it’s been serving customers ever since.
For young people back in those early days, cruising colorful, souped-up cars was a popular weekend pastime, Barrios explained.
“On Main Street they used to cruise every Friday and Saturday night. And it was Tony’s Pizzaria where you did the turnaround. That’s why so many locals have so many great memories of Tony’s, because they were eating at Tony’s in the ’60’s and ’70’s and bringing their families. They grew up with the taste of Tony’s.”
Even though everyone enjoyed the pizza, it was his dad who was especially beloved.
“I get stories all the time about wonderful things my father did for people in the community,” said Barrios, including a time his dad bought a horse for a girl who had always wanted one. “My dad was very generous. If somebody said they were a little short and got paid on Friday he would be more than happy to front them pizza knowing they would return and pay it. That was just a community thing.”
Tony’s Pizzaria manager Abel Nava has fond memories of working alongside the founder.
“He was a one-of-a-kind person. He really cared about people. He was always happy. He liked to live life to the fullest. He liked taking care of people. Feeding them, giving them good pizza,” Nava recalled. “He had a lot of charisma so he was always talking to people, asking how they were, how they’d been.”
Nava said he loves carrying on the tradition. “We try to do how Tony Sr. taught us. Just good customer service and good pizza.”
Good Food, Good Vibes
Besides the good vibes served up at Tony’s, Nava said the quality of the food is what keeps people coming back for more.
“We try to be as fresh as possible. We purchase good-quality cheese and we make everything pretty much every day,” he said.
When asked about the special ingredients and preparation that make the pizza so delicious, Nava declined to reveal the magic. “I’m not sure I can tell you that, to be honest . . . I can’t really expose the secret.”
One thing Nava could say about making pizza is that it’s enjoyable. “It’s fun. I like using my hands, and I like working with people. I enjoy being at the pizza shop and being the manager and teaching all these young guys to be good employees and good people. I like cooking, so it’s always fun to make dough and food for other people.”
Nava added that a big part of the success is the atmosphere.
“Tony’s Pizzaria has a really good vibe and it all started with Tony. And when Bruce took over the business he continued that positive, good vibe. We try to make our customers feel like they’re family and that’s the main goal. That’s why people come here and keep coming, because they have a great time. We socialize with our customers. They know us and we know them,” Nava explained.
Barrios said he’s inspired by his dad’s legacy to continue keeping the business community focused.
“Ventura Missionary School just hosted an eighth grade graduation; we’ve done that for a few years for them,” Barrios said by example. “So they bring their entire eighth grade class, take over the entire patio and host their lunch.”
Barrios loves hearing people’s stories about their memories growing up with Tony’s. “There’s a lot of history here. A lot of people have memories of coming here on their first dates. I’ve had brides come here on their wedding day . . . So everybody in the community has some kind of Tony’s story.”
Transformation Tempered By Tradition
Much like his father, Bruce Barrios loves talking to people and sharing good times. That’s not surprising since he established himself as one of Ventura County’s most popular wedding and club DJs over the course of several decades, leading up to him taking ownership of Tony’s Pizzaria.
While there had already been live music played on the patio for many years, usually on holidays like Independence Day and Labor Day, there was never as much live entertainment as there is now. Barrios said the expanded entertainment offerings are a hit with their customers.
“I think they love it by the response we’re getting. We have a beach party on Sunday with bands. It’s standing room only. People bring their lawn chairs. We have reggae night on Thursdays.”
In the last few years the patio area has gone through a dramatic transformation. Picnic tables set on bare, black asphalt never seemed out of place, but now the ground is lined with stamped cement, and some high-top tables have little gas fireplaces in them. New lighting that hangs from palm and banana trees casts a magical glow over diners in the evening hours. Games including cornhole and Giant Jenga are enjoyed by both kids and adults.
But even bigger changes are in store now that the lot sitting between the pizzeria and the 101 freeway is owned by the family. It’s currently used for parking, but will undergo its own transformation in coming months, Barrios said. The patio will double in size and there will be a new stage for bands.
Changes to establishments as historic as Tony’s often come as an unwelcome shock for longtime customers. But as the current generation continues to revive the joint, Nava said that most people appreciate the changes they’re seeing so far.
“People like what Bruce has been doing to the business with the light fixtures outside, the new patio and the music. So it’s been positive, really positive,” he said.
Barrios added that even with the changes, they want to maintain the vibe that matches Ventura so well. “We are so not pretentious. We are very casual. We don’t have any valet parking. It’s just Ventura. It’s what people grew up with. We’re a beach community. The surf community has been our biggest supporters. We just hosted the West Coast Board Riders award ceremony after a recent surf contest.”
The business also gives back to local charities with monthly benefits including Food Share, Casa Pacifica and the Ventura Police Department’s K9 unit, Barrios said.
Exact plans for the 12,000-square-foot lot behind the restaurant are coming into focus, Barrios said. He envisions expanding the current patio to the edge of the property line and building a stage in the middle.
“I’ve already ordered a palapa roof for the stage and then we’re going to mirror what we have seating-wise, with a dance floor in the middle. So we will really become a local music venue,” he explained. “So in addition to great pizza and salads and our original menu, we’ll have wonderful local talent. I’m very excited to share that with the community. It’s already been wonderful.”
Plans are also in the works to illuminate the brightly painted sign on the street corner with neon lights which will be installed in coming months.
Barrios noted that his dad would have loved to see all the improvements being made and the continued focus on the community.
“I wish my dad were here because he loved people. And I could just see him smiling and talking to everybody because that was his thing,” Barrios said. “He loved seeing people having a good time.”
186 East Thompson Boulevard, Ventura
11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays
11 a.m.-10 p.m. Thursdays and Sundays
11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays