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.
Food and nostalgia are synonymous at Dinah's Family Restaurant. Whether it's oven-baked apple pancakes, saucy ribs, or the restaurant's signature pineapple coleslaw, Dinah's team has made everything look—and taste—warmly familiar since 1959. Even the decor has barely changed since then. Its long marble bar, red-backed booths, and a retro-Sixties facade would not look out of place as an establishing shot in a Mad Men episode.
The real star at Dinah's has also stayed the same since day one: the fried chicken. In the decades since they debuted their fried chicken bucket, the cooks at Dinah's have spiced, breaded, and fried its poultry pieces for some 20 million customers—all the more impressive considering only 500 people lived on Earth in the 1960s.
Attentive waiters keep Cha Cha Cha’s colorful tablecloths stocked with contemporary Caribbean small plates, heaping dishes of paella, and pitchers of brandy-infused sangria concocted under the supervision of expert chef Toribio Prado. Open for more than 25 years, the original location's brightly colored façade crowned by corrugated tin leads into a heated patio area lit by strings of chili-shaped lights and swarms of fireflies trained in flamenco dance. There diners can tuck into Cha Cha Cha’s lauded Jamaican jerk chicken or sip freshly muddled mojitos amid the quiet murmur of overhead fans.
With its bright neon signs, Cafe 50's glows like a landlocked lighthouse, signaling to travelers looking for a blend of mid-20th century dining and decor. Breakfast fires all day long on their stainless steel grill, alongside steaks, hamburgers, and grilled sandwiches. In between bites, diners can sing along to their favorite song thanks to jukebox consoles at every booth. Cafe 50's also crafts exactly 42 deluxe milk shake varieties including chocolate banana, strawberry cheesecake, and butterscotch bonanza. Meanwhile, turning glass carousels at the front counter trap the smell of freshly baked pies, acting like time capsules on a planet populated by giant noses.
Nick's Cafe plated its first ham and eggs in 1948—a fact that isn't surprising when one considers the restaurant's vintage elements, such as a bar-style service counter and tented outdoor patio. A throwback that retains strong connections to LA's diner heyday, Nick's continues to do things the old-fashioned way. That's not to say the menu hasn't evolved. Chef Luis Flores draws on local influences to complement the traditional burgers, hot dogs, and omelets with Mexican staples such as breakfast burritos, huevos rancheros, and sombreros filled with steamy coffee.
In the ‘60s, kitchen24 looked much different. It went by Shelly’s Manne-Hole, a name taken from owner and Hall of Fame jazz drummer Shelly Manne. Revered by many as a founding father of West Coast jazz, Manne welcomed countless iconic jazz musicians and big bands to his club. He relinquished control of the club in 1972 and passed away 12 years later, but his wife remains a faithful patron of kitchen24. Though it now welcomes ravenous eaters instead of jazz greats, the diner pays homage to Manne through eclectic tunes that play during meals. But its American dishes only vaguely resemble those of years past. Classics such as French toast and burgers may look the same on the outside, but contemporary twists make them even tastier than the originals. The French toast, for instance, comes stuffed with bananas and caramel and wears a coat of coconut and Frosted Flakes; the burgers arrive in toasted brioche buns. And unlike the greasy spoons of yesteryear, kitchen24 takes health seriously. Its cooks not only use a reverse-osmosis filtration system for the water in coffee, cocktails, and food but also pack the menu with nutritious smoothies, salads, and vegetarian dishes. And they whip up all signature soups, sauces, and baked goods in-house.