Diners in South San Francisco

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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.

1946 Fillmore Street
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

Four Things to Know about Joanie’s Happy Days Diner

This retro diner whips up classic American breakfasts and lunches—all made with fresh ingredients and just a dash of nostalgia. Here are a few more fun facts to keep in mind if you plan to visit.

  • You can pretend it’s still morning, even if it’s 2 p.m. The diner serves breakfast and lunch all day, so whether you’re craving omelets or burgers, something on the menu is sure to hit the spot.
  • The buttermilk pancakes are stellar. According to SFGate, breakfast is owner Joanie Dang’s signature, and the buttermilk pancakes are “well browned with a buoyant, lacey texture.”
  • You don’t have to leave Fido docked at the curb. The diner allows dogs to tuck themselves under their owners’ chairs on the patio.
  • There are two locations. After the success of the original location on Fisherman’s Wharf, Joanie opened up a second spot in Burlingame, meaning you don’t have to make your way through throngs of tourists get your pancake fix.

1329 Columbus Ave.
San Francisco,
CA
US

Five Things to Know About Art’s Cafe

Art’s Cafe has been serving up hearty, homestyle breakfast and lunch dishes for decades, and its not uncommon to see a line out the door. Read on to discover the secret behind its lasting popularity.

  • There is actually an Art. He runs the restaurant and works the grill (with assistance from his family).
  • The food is truly fusion. Art’s Cafe combines classic American diner fare with the flavors of Korean cuisine. Expect to find bibimbap omelettes and bulgogi plated up alongside frosty shakes.
  • The breakfast sandwiches aren’t made with bread. Hash-brown sandwiches are the specialty at Art’s Cafe, and the dishes are exactly what they sound like: ingredients such as bacon, beef teriyaki, or bell peppers, griddled up and served folded inside crispy hash browns.
  • The cafe is cozy. The seating area is limited to one counter, so be prepared to rub elbows with fellow diners.
  • Its fan mail is on display. The cafe’s counter is covered with greeting cards sent by grateful patrons from all over the world.

747 Irving St
San Francisco,
CA
US