On a busy weekend morning at Mels Drive-In, customers slide in and out of deep green booths with ease, sharing square plates of pancake stacks or grilled ham steaks with eggs. Coffee refills come fast. The sun pours in from large plate-glass windows that look out over the boulevard; the room is wrapped in black and white photos of carhops, forgotten celebrities, and beehive hairdos. For some, it might seem challenging to run a restaurant that also doubles as a kind of cultural museum, but not to Colton Weiss. Weiss is the third-generation co-owner of the iconic retro diner chain with more than a half-dozen locations, known for its big neon signs, classic soda jerk outfits, and staple coffee shop menu. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
“My great-grandfather Jack had restaurants inside of old Walgreens, way back in like the ’30s,” says Weiss. But it was his grandfather David “Mel” Weiss who would really forge the family’s fortune, riding the cultural rise of carhop restaurants in the late 1940s to build one of the most recognizable brands on the West Coast. This week, Mels Drive-In celebrates 75 years since Mel Weiss opened the first restaurant in San Francisco, altering the diner landscape of Southern California (and according to Colton Weiss, the movie industry) forever.
Most people in California have at least a passing knowledge of Mels Drive-In (no apostrophe), from its beginnings on skate wheels to its star turn as a backdrop for the 1973 George Lucas film American Graffiti, where hotrod cars and teenage angst meet over french fries and milkshakes. The film, shot on location at a Mels Drive-In in the Bay Area, was already a nostalgia play when it was released, harkening back to the early 1960s despite its mid-’70s release (a full four years before Star Wars), and helped to solidify what the neon-riddled West Coast diner scene had really looked like at a time when fast-food chains and sprawling suburban home dinners were becoming the norm.
“American Graffiti really put George Lucas on the map,” says Weiss. “We still have a lot of the old photos of Mels from the movie inside our restaurants right now.” The preferred Mels brand of kitsch includes small coin-operated jukeboxes at the booths, stuffed and swiveling seats bolted beneath Formica counters, and the kind of heavy ceramic plates of dinner meatloaf that seem transported from another decade.
Unfortunately, the film’s debut coincided with the 1973 oil crisis, which saw heavy fuel rationing nationwide and a turn toward smaller, less showy commuter vehicles and public transportation. By the end of the 1970s, the inefficiency of large all-day spaces, servers on skates, and the nostalgia for postwar America had faded enough that Mels was sold off and eventually closed. It was Colton Weiss’s father, Steven Weiss, who reopened the brand several years later, jumping back onto Lombard Street in San Francisco in 1985 with the first new Mels Drive-In in years, but without the actual skaters moving car to car.
“My father really saved the company,” says the younger Weiss. “When Mels reopened it was this big thing, everyone was super excited. In San Francisco, all of the folks that had gone to the restaurant when they were kids, they now wanted to share that with their kids.” In quick succession, Steven Weiss grew Mels to several Bay Area locations including one on Geary Street that had previously been a Mels for years, where he had worked as a teenage soda jerk. The company expanded to Los Angeles in 1988, opening inside a funky former coffee shop in Sherman Oaks that seemed built to play to the retro strength of Mels.
“We’ve always loved Googie architecture,” says Weiss, nodding to the restaurant’s love of sharply slanted rooflines and tilted glass frontage. “It’s just got so much history.” Much like Norms, a fellow Googie diner chain founded in Southern California in 1949, Los Angeles’s proliferation of quirky architecture and car culture have made the city fertile ground for expansion. Since opening in the Valley in 1988, the Weiss family has gone on to save other Googie landmark spaces, including a former Ben Frank’s coffee shop on Sunset Boulevard that had been in operation since 1949. “It used to be a hangout for Marilyn Monroe and all of these celebrities,” says Weiss. In the years since reopening, the restaurant has held parties for Arnold Schwarzenegger, Diddy, Lana Del Rey, and countless other stars. “Every restaurant has the best regulars,” says Weiss. “We get people from all walks of life, blue-collar guys up to Al Pacino, and all ages. That’s what’s so cool about Mels, you get everybody.”
A tourist-friendly location opened around the corner from Hollywood and Highland in 2002, with a hovering neon woman serving a shake, followed in 2018 by a prominent location in Santa Monica at the terminus of Route 66. That pitched-roof Googie restaurant had for decades been a Penguin Coffee Shop before becoming a dental office, only to return to life under the Mels umbrella.
In the early days of the pandemic, the Weiss family even found ways to return to its original rollerskate roots, offering traditional carhop service so families could dine in the parking lot while remaining socially distanced. Weiss says that, in part, the attention from those carhops — which spurred a lowrider hangout scene on the Sunset Strip with none other than Snoop Dogg — helped to keep the restaurants afloat.
“Because Mels has been around for so long, you’re always going to have ups and downs,” he says. “I mean, it’s 75 years of history. For us to still be here, it’s such a huge milestone.” The next step is franchising, growing the Mels Drive-In name nationally while, hopefully, holding on to the time capsule nature of the place, its photos, and its architecture. At its best, Mels is a place that feels familiar, a museum with a killer milkshake.
Mels Drive-In celebrates 75 years in business on Wednesday, December 14, offering 75 percent off deals at all locations in Los Angeles and San Francisco.