Actor Tom Hardy wanted a picture there. Victoria's Secret model Taylor Hill (with nearly 11 million Instagram followers) posted from two of its outposts in the last 8 months. Justin Bieber and the Jonas Brothers were spotted there. But these a-list celebrites weren't at a trendy sleek nightclub. Instead, they were at an old-school, 1940s- and 50s-style diner: Mel's Drive-in, an iconic restaurant so Instagram-worthy that Instagram has its parties there (the company threw a joint pre-Golden Globes party with Vanity Fair at Mel's Sunset Blvd location).
We spoke to current co-owner Colton Weiss, grandson of the original Mel's founder, Mel Weiss, to ask how Mel's became one of California's hottest photo-ops. The answer included a little bit of George Lucas, a little bit of Googie architecture, and a lot about attention to 1950s detail and design.
First, we asked Colton to bring us up to speed on Mel's history:
1947: "My grandfather Mel started it as the first drive-in restaurant up in San Francisco. Back then the cars parked in tandem, and then we had all the carhops serve the cars."
1973: "George Lucas came along, and he was looking for a spot to film his new movie American Graffiti. ... He decided that Mel's would be the perfect spot for his movie. So my grandfather said, 'Go ahead, film the movie.' ... And this movie came out, and back then it was dollar-for-dollar the most-profitable movie of all time. It put Mel's on the map. Everyone kept seeing this movie and they all wanted to eat at Mel's."
1985: (After being closed for nine years, Mel's reopened on Lombard Avenue.) "There was a renaissance for diners, and that's where my dad [Steven Weiss] came along. He reopened Mel's, and when he did, everybody who used to go to my grandfather's restaurants when they were kids and growing up, they had their kids go. They wanted to share that same experience."
2018: "Now we have eight restaurants–four in San Francisco, and four in Los Angeles. It's become a landmark in both San Francisco and Los Angeles, which is pretty amazing."
"The aesthetic on the inside and outside is classic American diner," Colton says of all eight Mel's locations. Each location is a little bit different, though most embody Googie architecture, a California-born, 1950s style known for its whimsical shapes, neon signs, and sweeping curves. Think the Jetsons or the "Welcome to Las Vegas sign."
The newest Mel's (open in June 2018) in Santa Monica is perhaps the best example of how the Mel's team seems obsessed with authenticity. This location is inside a now-defunct iconic LA diner from 1959, called The Penguin.
"We loved what they had done with the exterior because it was so authentic," Colton says of the original Penguin Coffee Shop."It was 50s architecture, 50s landscaping, 50s everything, and so we wanted to recreate that. We did the landscaping exactly how they did it. We were able to look at old photos and do everything for the exterior the exact same."
They even kept the old Penguin sign, beloved in the community. And they met with renowned Los Angeles photographer Jack Laxer (who died in June 2018) to see old pictures he had taken of The Penguin back in the day. The photos inspired Mel's interior designers to use tear-drop lights reminiscent of the Penguin's original look.
The result: a homey yet retro design that everyone wants their picture in front of or inside of.
"it just came out to be absolutely beautiful," Colton says. "Everybody who walks in is like, 'wow this is unbelievable.'"
"Every location is a little different," Colton says. "A lot of corporate places like to do things cookie cutter and we're not like that at all."
That's perhaps another reason why people want their picture at Mel's–each location has its own personality. Some might want to collect a picture at each one. And it seems like Colton could talk all day about each one:
That uniqueness is part of the reason Mel's is not just a run-of-the-mill brand. The other reason is that it's a family affair.
"When you walk inside, it's like you really are stepping back in time. I'm usually here at the restaurant greeting people," Colton says. "It's my family business and you wouldn't find that at another diner."
Browse the menu at your local Mel's, and you'll spot the old diner favorites–the Famous Melburger, cheese fries, old-fashioned milkshakes. But, depending on your location, there may be a few things you don't recognize. As Colton puts it, Mel's has evolved to offer things you might not see at your typical diner: