Vintage Sambo's restaurant photos

Sambo's is a politically incorrect name for a business, but these vintage photos of the chain restaurant are wonderful.


Tim Putz writes, "From 1960 to 1970, I photographed the first 100 Sambo's in the country. Today, only the first is still in operation here in Santa Barbara. At one time there were about 1200 locations from coast to coast."

Vintage Sambo's Restaurant Photos


  1. My family used to eat at Sambo’s when I was young and I remember loving those gumdrop-colored stools and the amazing light fixtures. It still looks 100 times more hip than any restaurant Gordon Ramsay has made over.

    But I must say the photographer has a most unfortunate last name…

  2. I still have a plush Sambo tiger on my shelf, and many fond memories of visiting the restaurant in Florida with my grandparents.

    Let it be noted the eponymous Sambo was the Indian version of the character, despite protests to the contrary.

  3. Ate there with the grandparents many times in the ’70s. I still remember its comforting orangey glow. I still remember its comforting orangey glow, like a vinyl-lined womb.

    I despair to think how many of the beautiful structures in these photos are gone forever.

  4. In the 70s my family were on the road a lot, doing the horse show circuit. The VIP’s and Sambo’s restaurants were like oases in the vastness between shows. I had a blast at each stop, and the food was always good.

  5. OMG! I remember all of the pictures above the kitchen area and even then realized that it wasn’t “politically correct”. I still enjoyed the pancakes and I specifically remember the picture of little Sambo with the snake. I used to go to the one in Palm Desert California in the early 70’s.

  6. Antinous, thanks for that link; I’d never known the term “Googie,” but I love the style.

  7. Yeah, I could never wrap my head around the idea that they had taken the “Little Black Sambo” idea and diluted it down to a fairly fair-skinned Indian boy and it was STILL considered “racist”. Today, with Hindu culture being so hip, these depictions would probably be more than welcome!

    By the way, this was always my grandfather Sam’s favorite place for breakfast. Wonder why . . . ?

  8. After perusing the pics on the photographer’s site, I’m struck with the apparent mandate that Sambo’s HQ must have dictated at some point: NEVER make one restaurant look like another! What a great idea, that each location could share an aesthetic, but couldn’t just be carbon-copies. Spectacular!

    And GROOVE AWAY on the orange/purple/yellow schemes!

  9. I remember them having really good pancakes and also pigs-in-a-blanket and I remember eating there frequently. The weird thing is that I can’t figure out which city that could possibly have been in.

    1. Wow, that site looks like someone’s Flash 101 project.

      I like how they put the tiger in pants. I may have to drive out there to check it out. The photos are kind of underlit so it is hard to see if the place is Googie or not.

  10. I remember really looking forward to going to Sambo’s for breakfast. It was so much better than Denny’s or Perkins for some reason.

    Now, bring on some vintage pictures of Stuckey’s!

  11. It was originally named after the founders, Sam Battistone and Newell Bohnett. The association with the Little Black Sambo story came later.

  12. Need not be politically incorrect; it depends on which Sambo it’s named after. (I’m thinking of a group of friends who, after referring to Jim as Jimbo for a while, added the -bo suffix to other names as well. I don’t think anyone has yet told Bill’s kids that he was occasionally known as Bilbo…)

  13. Wow, I had totally forgotten that I had ever eaten at Sambos. Growing up in PDX, my family was always partial to Yaws.

  14. A sambos in san jose, CA was our local breakfast joint when I was a kid. We’d all pedal our bikes down there every sunday and feast on flapjacks. We loved the place.

    I hate to see when things that are not in any way racist get caught up in a general cultural upwelling of (over) sensitivity. As others have said, Sambo’s wasn’t named after the classic children’s book, and even though the mascot was derived from said book, there was still absolutely noting about the images that was derogatory.

    All that aside, wow, wouldn’t it be great to build new retro diners on exactly that theme pictured above. Pure beauty, even without the mascot.

  15. Here in Australia “sambo” is an oft used abbreviation for “sandwich”. True story. As a Kiwi living in Australia I’ve found myself explaining the not so savoury associations of the term to nonplussed natives on more than one occasion.

  16. LOVE IT! Used to eat at a Sambos in Spokane Washington all the time growing up. That and Big Boy’s were favorites of our family!

  17. In the photo above, there are a series of paintings, all but one obscured by a hanging lamp.

    Did these tell the “Sambo” story, by any chance?

    * * *

    I just had an odd thought. Create paraphernalia — menus, coloring books, place mats — and a nostalgia site for a TOTALLY FICTIONAL beloved diner chain.

  18. When I was very small, we used to eat at a Sambo’s restaurant in Atlanta, GA. I don’t remember a whole lot about it; only that it was a restaurant. But I do remember that my sister had a stuffed lion toy that she got from there. My parents were a bit annoyed when the chain left Georgia. I remember my mom irritatedly saying how they could have just changed the name if it pissed everybody off so much, instead of shutting down the chain. I’m not really old enough to have an opinion about it, but if it was really that great, then I agree; why not just change the name?

  19. Nobody’s gonna hurt anybody. We’re gonna be like three Fonzies. And what’ Fonzie like? C’mon Yolanda, what’s Fonzie like?

  20. Little Black Sambo of the story was Indian in any version that hasn’t been messed up. There are tigers in India, but have not historically been tigers in Africa or anywhere else a person who is “black” in the American sense would usually live.

  21. the building for the one in reno is still here, but that interior is, i believe, long gone. it’s been a jillion other restaurants since then. i am in love with the interior shown for this story. if one had survived and still looked like that, i’d be eating in it all the time. and those lights? SWOON!

  22. Holy crap! I worked for Tim Putz at his 1-hour photo joint in Santa Barbara in the early ’90s!
    (He WAS kind of a putz too; always super-gloomy and grumpy).

    Little Black Sambo’s, AFAIK, started in Santa Barbara, and the last one (it was called Sambo’s by then) is on Cabrillo Ave. right by the beach. It was a gorgeous joint even in it’s decline (the food was kinda meh) and we used to go to it just to enjoy the decor.

  23. There was a Sambo’s in our hometown that I ate at a lot as a kid.

    My favorite part? That their butter for the pancakes was made from real melted tigers!

  24. Sambo’s was my traditional breakfast spot on Saturday mornings with my uncle Wally until the one we went to closed down. The one we went to was on Westminster Blvd just before Seal Beach Blvd in the city of Seal Beach, CA. There was one restaurant there afterward but that one is long gone. The Sambo’s spot is unoccupied now. Every time I drive by there I dream of seeing Sambo’s again.

  25. The Sambo’s in Santa Rosa, CA was replaced by a local chain called Adel’s at some point. Thankfully, the original building was left intact. The only thing they changed was the color scheme.

    After seeing the original layout, I wish they’d kept it the same.

  26. I wonder who designed these? That person or firm was good.

    I see a lot of commercial dining concepts in my line of work. They’re usually competent, but devoid of style. Things ain’t what they used to be.

  27. Yeah, I used to go to that one in Santa B. Loved the feel of it. And the beach was right across the street.

  28. Antinous: way to moderate! The Sambo story I knew. . .but Googie? Always know it when I see it; now I can holler ‘Googie!’ when I do.

  29. There’s a Denny’s in Joplin, MO that looks exactly like that; they bought out 800 of the restaurants back in ’84. One of the pictures on the site shows the “Sambo” sign in a Denny’s-like diamond shape.

  30. i worked for sambo’s as a cook and cook trainer,opening new units throughout pennsylvania and ohio…i had a glorious time and loved working with them!!
    i also worked for a closed down one that had been converted into a privately owned establishment…not so glorious!!

  31. I remember the whole Sambo’s kerfuffle (being a white suburban kid, I really didn’t get it at the time). I remember an ad for the re-branded chain, “No Place Like Sam’s” that had an animated guy (“Sam” I guess) who forlornly sang “There’s No Place… *sigh* Like Sam’s” sort of channeling the desperate, dispirited mood of the company. It made me sad.

  32. Sambo’s in Santa Barbara is a great little breakfast place. You get warm little choc. chip muffins on your table before you even order.

  33. Yikes. With one or two exceptions, that photo wouldn’t be completely anachronistic today. A lot of 60s-70s-era design motifs are coming back into vogue, which terrifies me.

    The color scheme, dark wood, sharp angles, and backlit paintings all would not be entirely out of place today.

  34. There was a Sambos near my home when I was growing-up in Indianapolis. It was our favorite late-night-to-early-morning refuge from a busy night of high-school shenanigans. Great pancakes!

  35. Pinehead, that actually happend a couple of years ago here in Michigan – there was a coffe shop chain called “Beaners” that ended up renaming itself Bigby’s. The coffee still sucks, but at least it’s politically correct.

  36. This was great to see – it helps me understand why Sambo’s was my favorite restaurant at age 6. I now know I was a little budding mod, and the crystalline back lit illustrations above the counter I could stare at for hours. No, it wasn’t PC, but I innocently loved it.

  37. i used to go to the one one Vermont and 6th street in los angeles as a 10yr old boy with my family. lots of fond memories of eating there, almost 34 years ago. I remember those bright colors and long wait to get a table.

  38. I worked at Sambos Northside in Santa Barbara, on State Street It was in front of the home office.
    It was a great place with excellant food,Sam Battistone And Jo Bonnett were in the retaurant all the time. No airs about them and if there was a waiting line they stood in that line and waited. Can you imagine anyone now who owened over a thousand restaurants waiting?.
    The story of Sambo was an Indian boy the story originated with a british governess telling it to her charges.
    For years no one mentioned it being PC but then everything went to hell ia a basket and has gone down ever since this PC is a lot of crap .you can’t even order a black coffee in England how is that for stupidity.

  39. I was a Host, then a Cook from 1973 to 76. I was 15 when I began my Sambo’s career and have never enjoyed any job as much since then. As I stood behind the cook station with my orange neckerchief, and paper chef’s hat on my head, as I was 6’2″, the hat added another foot in height – made me the object of amazement when kids from my high school stopped for pancakes. They couldn’t believe I had that cool a job at such a young age.

    The food quality was fantastic. One could eat really excellent fried shrimp dinners for no charge. All the food for employees was free. Steaks however, were a buck. And those New Yorks and Top Sirloins – the best quality. Fresh eggs, ham and cheese omelets, strawberry or blueberry pancakes (crepes actually), awesome fried chicken. Chef’s salads, PATTY MELTS WITH GRILLED ONION!!! I loved all of it.

    The making of fresh pancake batter was another of my jobs. It would rise a bit, not unlike bread rising, then beat a little more, then store in walk-in refrigerator.
    I like to tell people that if I’m an expert at anything, it is the correct cooking of pancakes. I estimate having prepared THOUSANDS of the best pancakes in the country!

    Another great thing that I learned at Sambo’s was how to prepare several dishes at the same time and serve all at once. I can still do it, and big holiday dinners are no challenge for me at all.

    The other cool thing about our Sambo’s was that the manager was not too old. So he tended to hire very young and cute waitresses. A couple of my girlfriends in fact.

    Even more interesting was that the local cops would eat there and grew to at least recognize me. This was very helpful in the era when cops would search teen-aged driver’s cars looking for weed, etc. While I didn’t use any drugs, I drove like a maniac, but the police never gave me a hard-time. I might soon be making them bacon and eggs the next morning!

    When I first started there, I was a host, so I seated people and provided menus. My first shift was that of the “bar-rush”, the crowd that comes for coffee, etc following an evening of drinking. This was fun because I was tall, well-dressed because the manager insisted on it, very naive and sheltered, and nothing but tipsy women of all ages asking me if I was single – and occasionally putting their phone number in my pocket. A fun time for a fifteen year-old guy for sure.

    So for all you people who have posted here describing how you loved your local and out-of-town Sambo’s Restaurants, you now have a glimpse of what a high-school kid thought of his Sambo’s.

  40. My family went there right before we leave for vacation and my Twin Sister and I alway’s love the Picture’s on the wall I wish they still have one in Beaumont

  41. To Hungryjoe & others who are interested, My father was the resturant designer and equipment supplier for Sambo’s from store #6 I believe in 1961 thru their demise in the mid-70’s. He would receive the basic building plan from the corp. boys & outfit all the booths, counters, lighting, waitress stations, cooking stations, back room and ac/heating equiptment as well. His parameters were to stick with the Sambo’s colors and general design, but he had to design each interior according to the existing building plan. On occasion where the corp. was building a new site, they tried to stick with a basic design & he had preplanned interiors for those instances. All the lighted murals came from an artist’s studio there in Sana Barbara, the painted pictures were all hand-done as well by a local individual. As an aside, the first few resturants did have Little Sambo with a black face & I have the originals, painted on masonite, from the S.B. Beach store among my dad’s things.

  42. I can remember back in the late 70’s working at sambo’s in McMinnville oregon for about 4 years as the graveyard cook, it was a great time back then.

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