Diners in San Rafael

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At Marin Murder Mysteries, dinner mates may ask you to pass the rolls just before they begin chipping away at your alibi. That’s because guests are both suspects and sleuths during the theater troupe’s interactive performances, attempting to tally the clues and pinpoint the culprit's motive. Each year, the cast and crew serve up three to four different shows that inject generous portions of slapstick into the familiar detective genre. The writers and directors have a particular fondness for the noir-soaked era of the 1950s, with such past plays as Remains to be Seen, Murder Me, Always, and Death of a Doornail. During the show, guests have the option to dine on a gourmet dinner or sip cocktails from a cash bar.

931 4th St
San Rafael,
CA
US

For more than 50 years, Tiburon Diner was known as Dave and Mike's—an "Adult Day Care Center," as its menu proclaimed. Dave retired in early 2012, and the business adopted its current moniker, changing its name but remaining a place for Tiburonites to sit down at the counter over cups of coffee, browse the eatery's free WiFi , and eat their morning newspapers. In the kitchen, Mike (the head chef) prepares heartier helpings of large pancakes and three-cheese omelets for breakfast and patty melts and half-pound burgers for lunch, serving each plate amid the diner's homey decor of blue trim and vintage photographs of Old Tiburon.

1640 Tiburon Blvd
Belvedere Tiburon,
CA
US

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.

3355 Geary Blvd
San Francisco,
CA
US

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.

2201 Chestnut St
San Francisco,
CA
US

St. Francis Fountain

Historic Soda Fountain | Monster Hashes | Egg Creams and Floats | Vegan Milk Shakes | Hangover Cures

Sample Menu

  • To eat: hamburger with spuds
  • To share: a pair of Upside Down Hog Cakes—pancakes made with bacon, cheddar, and onion
  • To drink: milk shake

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.

Inside Tips

  • Scan the menu closely if you’re vegetarian or vegan—tons of dishes have meatless or nondairy tweaks available.
  • Larger groups might have trouble finding space here, since seating options are limited. (Things were smaller in 1918.)

Vocab Lesson
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

  • Before: Ramble down Balmy Alley (parallel to Treat Avenue and Harrison Street between 24th and 25th Streets) and tour murals ranging from the 1980s to, potentially, a couple weeks ago.
  • After: Plot to make your own sourdough french toast with a sourdough-bread-baking class from Sour Flour at La Victoria Bakery (2937 24th Street).

2801 24th St
San Francisco,
CA
US

Zazie’s moniker comes from a ‘60s-era French film starring a pint-sized heroine of the same name. In an interview with Check, Please!, owner Jennifer Piallat describes mischievous Zazie as a French Shirley Temple—that is, one who drinks, swears, and smokes. With a mascot like that, perhaps it's surprising what type of people the French bistro attracts. It’s mostly families and regulars (about 80% by Jennifer’s estimation), a fact Jennifer credits to her staff, who form a rapport with the regulars by shouting the name of their own favorite board game every few minutes. Of course, Zazie didn’t score a stellar Zagat rating on its service alone. Critics and customers delight in the brunch menu, which is filled with treats such as house-made cream cheese coffee cake, pancakes, eggs, and, of course, French toast. But Jennifer prefers dinner, when chefs prepare grilled pork chops with Riesling sauce and casseroles of crispy duck leg and French sausages. Experience these dishes outside on the garden patio or in a dining room where vintage posters embellish exposed brick walls.

941 Cole St
San Francisco,
CA
US