A Neighborhood Favorite

Left, Manager Niko Tsianos and the Hi-Life team. Photos by Kamala Kirk

Hi-Life Burgers, which most people refer to simply as High-Life, is a family-owned business that rose to success as a result of lots of hard work and determination. It was founded in 1978 by Peter Tsianos, a Greek immigrant who came to the United States in pursuit of the American Dream. He started out as a dishwasher and worked his way up in the restaurant industry, eventually deciding that he wanted to open a place of his own that would offer high-quality food and service to customers.

“My father worked 14 to 16-hour shifts and saved every penny so that he could open a restaurant,” said Niko Tsianos, Peter’s son and the manager of Hi-Life. “He originally looked at a space in San Bernardino, but someone beat him to it. The guy who was selling the place told him that he had another property for sale on Fair Oaks Avenue in South Pasadena. It was $10,000 over his budget, but the guy liked my dad and his ambition, so he agreed to sell it to him for less. And that’s how Hi-Life Burgers began.”

Niko, who has worked at Hi-Life since he was 18, has been the manager for 17 years. His father still comes in occasionally, but leaves the day-to-day operations up to his sons, Niko and George.   

“This was my first official job and I’ve worked my way up over the years,” Niko said. “I’ve done everything—cleaned the bathrooms, cooked in the kitchen—you name it. My father taught me that to earn employees’ respect, you need to know the ins and outs of everything and start from the bottom. I’ve seen it for myself and I’m a big believer in that. I’ve worked here for 20 years and I feel like I’m home. It doesn’t feel like work to me.”

The menu features a wide variety of classic American dishes, including burgers (try the special pastrami burger), grilled cheeses, sandwiches, hot dogs, and salads. Mexican food is also served, and some of the most popular dishes are the Chilaquiles, burritos and Greek chicken salad, which has made-from-scratch Greek dressing with red wine vinegar and olive oil.

“We pay attention to details, we’re consistent, and we believe in high-quality food and great customer service,” said Niko. “All of our employees do a phenomenal job. We do not cut corners and try our best to live up to our name. If we can’t do something well, we don’t want to do it at all. We have a lot of regulars that eat here up to three times a day. We have so much respect for our customers, and we never want to disappoint them.”

Breakfast is served Monday through Saturday from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m., and Sundays from 8 a.m. to noon. Customer favorites include the pancakes, French toast, hash browns and breakfast burritos. Fresh hand-squeezed orange juice is another special offering that customers love. Sweet treats are available in the form of freshly baked cookies and milkshakes, including an Oreo milkshake—the newest addition to the restaurant’s menu.

“One of my favorite memories is when my father would bring me a strawberry shake when he picked me up from school,” Niko recalled. “That flavor and that memory have made the shake taste so much better. When I have a shake now, it just takes me back to that time. People have nostalgia for certain places that is irreplaceable. That’s why we really focus on keeping everything exactly how it used to be. We want to maintain the nostalgia that people are used to.”

The restaurant’s cups feature the original Hi-Life logo alongside a black-and-white photo of Niko, his grandfather, mother and brother eating a meal together. Niko said that customers are so nostalgic for his restaurant’s sandwiches that even when they have moved away to different states, they will return and stop by to pick up a sandwich and take it on the plane with them.

Hi-Life was prominently featured on an episode of Battle Creek, a television series starring Josh Duhamel and Dean Winters. When the show’s director Vince Gilligan, who was also the creator of Breaking Bad, visited the restaurant—he knew he wanted to shoot an episode there. Instead of changing the restaurant’s name for the show, which is typical in films and television, Gilligan kept the Hi-Life Burgers sign for the scene, and even had another sign made for the back of the restaurant during filming.

Hi-Life is also involved with the local community, and has catered the City of South Pasadena Christmas with Santa Claus for several years now, preparing huge orders of pancakes, bacon, sausage and hash browns to feed families.

“We are very humbled, appreciative and thankful,” said Niko. “It’s hard to imagine being in a different community—we are who we are because of our customers. When you come into Hi-Life Burgers, everyone is happy and smiling. It feels like I’m hanging out with a bunch of my best friends every day. The culture, the customers and employees together are like a symphony. It’s a beautiful thing.”

Hi-Life Burgers is located at 1326 Fair Oaks Ave. in South Pasadena. It is open Mon. – Thur. from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., Fri. from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sat. from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Sun. from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. For more information, call (626) 799-5401.

Hi-Life Burgers Business Spotlight appeared in the print edition of the South Pasadena Review on 1.18.19. Support Local Business.

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Kamala Kirk is a contributing writer for the South Pasadena Review, San Marino Tribune and The Quarterly Magazine. Kamala formerly served as Managing Editor of Beauty Launchpad Magazine, West Coast Editor of American Salon Magazine, and Digital Editor for E! Online. A native of Hermosa Beach, California, she is a proud USC Trojan and pug mom to Wrigley the Pug (@pugofpasadena).