The drive-in restaurant craze began in 1921 with Kirby’s Pig Stand in Dallas, Texas. As car ownership increased, so too did the popularity of drive-ins and in 1947, the first drive-in came to San Francisco, CA. Mel Weiss and Harold Dobbs opened the first Mel’s Drive-In at 140 South Van Ness Avenue. California’s warm weather made it the perfect location to run a restaurant where the customers were served at their cars by carhops. The original parking lot was able to accommodate 110 cars and a dining room that could seat 75 patrons.
The new Mel’s was such a success that the building and startup costs were made back in the first month. The description on melsdrive-in.com paints a picture of mid-century burger heaven:
” . . . the interior was typical diner style with plenty of Formica, chrome, and comfortable booth seating. In the center of the main floor, a row of stools faced a circular dining counter that wrapped around two complete soda fountains and a battery of pie cases and coffee urns. The original cooker had the ability to turn out 180 hamburgers per minute. A large staff of cooks, busboys and smartly uniformed servers and carhops kept the food moving and the customers happy.”
The success of the first restaurant encouraged Weiss and Dobbs to build several other restaurants that eventually stretched all over Northern California and included locations in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Sacramento, San Jose, Walnut Creek and Salinas.
In 1972 the Mel’s franchise was sold to Foster’s restaurant chain. Shortly after that, the original Mel’s location was chosen by George Lucas as the filming location of his movie, American Graffiti, released the following year.
Unable to compete with fast-food chains, Foster’s eventually had to file for bankruptcy and Mel’s was sold again. Several years later the original Mel’s location closed and was torn down. The famous name, however, has continued to exist as Mel’s Next Generation and there are still Mel’s drive-ins and diners in California.
Have you ever been to a Mel’s? We’d love it if you left a comment and told us about your experience.