Some surprising (and well-timed) weekend news to know about: Irv’s Burgers is coming back to life, for real. The longstanding roadside burger stop closed forever in 2018 after a tumultuous half-decade that spanned two locations and one heartbreaking final photo, but now a benefactor has stepped in to restore owner Sonia Hong to her rightful place in Los Angeles burger lore.
The shocking news is dropping today because, well, it’s National Burger Day apparently, and as a result, Hong is currently (as in right this moment) running a one-day pop-up at Employees Only in West Hollywood. That party is being put on by Lawrence Longo and his company Off the Menu — which just happens to be the group that is now backing Hong’s move into a new, permanent Irv’s Burgers stand in West Hollywood.
“It’s one of those brands that’s historic with LA food, and LA culture, from the Linda Ronstadt cover to the Clash,” says Longo by phone. “Everybody has a story about Irv’s.”
More than just memories, plenty of folks actually have memorabilia from the iconic stand, which was first started in 1946 (under a different name) and run for decades by Irv Gendis. Sonia and her family, including her late brother Sean and her equally-beloved mother “Mama” Hong, had been running the stand since 2000, with Sonia taking the orders and drawing quirky pictures and thank you notes on all the paper plates she handed out to customers. ‘Just For You!’ they would always read, along with a doodle of each person’s face; keepsakes that have made it into many a scrapbook around the city.
Those plates, and Hong’s hospitality, are legendary, and new renderings (shown above) for the upcoming stand will embrace the images as part of a mural attached to the new space at 7998 Santa Monica Boulevard, next door to their last location.
“I’m really happy,” said Hong when reached by phone. “A lot of the old customers have contacted me, and they want to come see me and have the burgers again. But everything takes time.”
Trouble first started brewing for the Hongs in 2013, when the landlords sought to redevelop the land on which the original Irv’s Burgers stand stood at the corner of Sweetzer and Santa Monica. Ownership changes and increasing rent forced the Hongs off that block, but local activism got the stand itself tagged as a historic property for the city of West Hollywood, meaning it couldn’t be torn down or removed (it’s now part of the corner restaurant Conservatory). The Hongs relocated to a storefront further east in 2014, before closing again in 2018. In one lasting image, Mama Hong can be seen through the window on the final night of service, head down, overcome and exhausted from trying to keep the family’s restaurant dream alive.
Now, it’s all coming back to life, and hopefully for a long time. Longo’s Off the Menu company, which runs food events and operates as an app that allows subscribers access to one-off dishes from around the LA and Orange County restaurant scene, is getting into the burger business directly. While the group isn’t opening a freestanding roadside stand, they are building out a corner location to open onto the street, stools and all, with a walk-up window where Hong can once again greet her many fans.
“Irv’s is not a cafeteria,” says Longo of the previous location. “It’s a burger stand. That’s the root of what I’ve wanted to do with this: restore the original Irv’s burger stand. Sonia will be able to work in that stand forever.”
As for how long “forever” really is, that remains to be seen. Sonia says that Mama is getting up there in years, so the restaurant will be a great way to rekindle her legacy while also giving the family some income. And when Sonia herself is ready to step away, or step back in order to take care of Mama, the stand can continue under her guidance.
“She has a good product,” says Longo, “and she should have never gone away. It’s like the Apple Pan, these places deserve to stick around.” As for an opening timeline for the new walk-up stand, Hong and Longo are focusing on getting the space built before nailing anything down. Regardless, it’s a good day to be a burger lover in Los Angeles.