In 1947, owners Mel Weiss and Harold Dobbs assembled a staff of 14 carhops to serve passing motorists at the first Mel's Drive-In. For the next two decades, customers partial to automobile dining flocked to the chain’s 11 California locations, eager to wash down grass-fed half-pound burgers with thick milk shakes. As fast-food outlets outpaced the drive-in's once-speedy service, its popularity declined, and it was eventually scheduled for demolition. The building got a temporary reprieve, however, when filmmaker George Lucas decided to use the drive-in's original location on Lombard Street as the colorful backdrop for his film American Graffiti. As bulldozers destroyed the last remnants of the historic drive-in, American Graffiti opened in theaters.
A decade later, though, Mel's son Steven reopened Mel's Drive-In in an attempt to carry on his father's dream. Steven restored the drive-in's multiple locations to mirror their original motif by stocking each with midcentury must-haves such as illuminated marquees, jukeboxes, and Elvis-themed WiFi passwords. The drive-in’s menu, meanwhile, balances period-appropriate fare, such as hot dogs and burgers, with healthy options, such as the Haven’s Famous vegetarian sandwich, two slices of nine-grain bread topped with avocado, sprouts, and tomatoes.
When Ronn Teitelbaum opened the first Johnny Rockets location in 1986, his goal was to create a restaurant where people could escape the postmodern blues of everyday life and experience a taste of time-honored Americana. The name itself is a nod to this ideal?it combines the star of a classic American fable, Johnny Appleseed, and a classic car, Oldsmobile?s beefy Rocket 88. The chain now makes itself at home in America's cultural landmarks, including Yankee Stadium and the Flamingo Hotel.
During dinners at the famous burger joints, you?ll see signs of simpler times, starting with the cooks and servers. Dressed head to toe in white, including white paper hats, they look like they?ve fallen out of a wormhole from the 1950s ready to sling shakes and cook up some eats. Behind a stainless-steel bar lined with red leather stools they tend to their traditional diner fare, including burgers and melts with sides such as chili-cheese fries and onion rings. Riding sidecar to each meal is a collection of hand-dipped and hand-spun floats, shakes, and malts topped with whipped cream.
The Setting: Louis' is nestled in the craggy, fog-blanketed cliffs of the Pacific Ocean. Massive windows not only showcase this stunning, panoramic landscape—with a red-streaked sunset if you time your visit right—but also indigenous and 19th-century ruins. This view, especially if taken in through the glass-walled corner booth, makes visitors feel like they're savoring their tuna melt in a fairy tale.
Green Stuff: Louis’ prides itself on being an eco-friendly establishment, from its 55% recycled tiled floors to its compostable takeout containers, and most everything in between.
Historic Soda Fountain | Monster Hashes | Egg Creams and Floats | Vegan Milk Shakes | Hangover Cures
Past Lives: St. Francis Fountain came by its lovely old neon signage authentically—it’s been a soda fountain since Greek immigrant James Christakes opened it in 1918. The family updated the dining room in 1948, but not much else changed until Peter Hood and Levon Kazarian took it over in 2002 after the original spot closed. (In the interim, Mission Local reported, regulars taped pleading notes on the windows asking that the fountain be preserved.) The new owners preserved St. Francis’s spirit while trading in the candy- and ice-cream-making areas for a full menu; the ice cream now comes from local institution Mitchell’s.
While You Wait: Browse the selection of vintage pop-culture ephemera filling what used to be the candy case, perhaps picking up a pack of Magnum, P.I. trading cards to entertain a fussy 55-year-old.
Black Forest ham: a black-edged ham named for the part of Germany where it’s produced via a three-month process involving curing with garlic, coriander, pepper, and juniper berries before it’s smoked over fir branches.
Egg cream: a classic (egg-free) fountain drink made with soda water, chocolate syrup and a little cream or, more commonly, milk.
While You’re in the Neighborhood
Toast Eatery satisfies the Bay Area’s breakfast and lunch cravings with its unique take on classic greasy-spoon fare. From Nutella-slathered pancakes to mac & cheese made with bleu cheese and cheddar, each dish invokes a simpler time while reflecting a modern sensibility. Here are some more facts to chew on before your visit: