Mel’s Drive-In is associated with many things: 1950s Googie architecture, classic West Coast diner cuisine, George Lucas’s 1973 film “American Graffiti.” Add Route 66 to that list.
The California chain opened a new restaurant in Santa Monica earlier this summer at the corner of Lincoln and Olympic, right where the 10 Freeway spits out its automotive payload. It also happens to be the spot where Route 66 comes to an end, a distinction the restaurant now proudly displays at its entrance.
That wasn’t the reason the chain originally sought the location, said Colton Weiss, grandson of Mel, the Drive-In’s original founder, but it’s one of many reasons it’s such a good fit for the restaurant.
“Santa Monica has always been a happening place,” Weiss said. “I kind of grew up in the area.”
One spot that stayed largely the same through all that happening was a building on Lincoln Boulevard sporting an over-the-top penguin figure over its entrance. Originally it was the Penguin, a local diner. After that, it was a dentist’s office. When the building became available again, the chain was quick to grab it.
“We knew it was a Googie style building, so we always had our eye on it,” Weiss said.
Googie, a style of architecture from the 1950s, was inspired by everything new, from the cutting edge of the atomic age to the sharp tail fins of Chevrolet cars. Googie buildings were supposed to be so off the wall that you wouldn’t need a sign to find them, so they were popular for roadside diners, Weiss explained.
All of the Mel’s Drive-Ins in Los Angeles are based in historic Googie or Art Deco buildings, he said. “We really like reviving old buildings.”
There was plenty to revive in the Penguin. Photos of the original interior helped recreate the look of the place down to the booths, but the rock wall was an unexpectedly original touch. When Mel’s started renovating the building, the walls were covered with white plaster, Weiss said.
“We didn’t know there was a rock wall on the other side of that. We took a hammer to it, and we unearthed the rock wall. It was like unearthing an ancient artifact,” he said. “It adds so much character to the interior of the building.”
One piece of character that’s pure Mel’s is a huge fish tank sporting figures of iconic landmarks from each of the seven states Route 66 runs through, Weiss said. It was designed to celebrate the restaurant’s status as the end of the route.
The restaurant has also set up events with the Route 66 Foundation, and there’s even a Route 66 burger on the menu, with grass fed beef, thousand island dressing, grilled onions and butter lettuce.
“Finding out that it’s the end of Route 66 is a huge, huge deal to us,” Weiss said.
The Route 66 Burger is one of a number of items that have been recently added to the Mel’s menu. It joins contemporary California cuisine like fresh squeezed juice, black bean burgers, avocado toast and gluten-free bread options.
Traditional diner items, like club sandwiches, BLTs and steak and eggs, are still on the menu. Patrons can get classic milkshakes as well as vegan shakes and shakes spiked with rum flavored sake.
“We always adapt to everyone’s taste,” Weiss said. It’s a blending of old and new that’s all part of the Mel’s aesthetic.
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