Tourists are generally unaware that along with the Golden Gate Bridge and its trolleys, San Francisco is famous for drive-ins. Mel Weiss and Harold Dobbs started it all back in 1947 when they built their first carhop eatery, inspired by similar restaurants serving motorists in Los Angeles. With a staff of fourteen carhops covering a 30,000 square foot parking lot, they lured the hungry with a local radio personality broadcasting a live remote. As music reverberated through car radios in the drive-ups, the curb-stepping gals of 140 South Van Ness became a new paradigm for service.
At all hours of the day and night, crowds of patrons that fancied dining-in-your-car came early and often. It didn't take long for the first unit to multiply into eleven! Six Mels became landmarks in the Bay Area with an additional cluster achieving their own notoriety in Stockton and Sacramento. They reigned for almost twenty years, until a parade of franchised fast food outlets finally outpaced their service. As the new philosophy of "serve yourself" began to reprogram attitudes about dining, Mels began its gradual decline.
By 1972, a New York restaurant conglomerate purchased most of the faltering units and changed their names. As colorful marquees were scheduled for removal, it appeared to many local enthusiasts that Mel's success story was about to end. They were only partly right.
Around the same time, filmmaker George Lucas was scouting out locations to serves as centerpiece for his rock'n'roll fable about life, love, and coming of age in postwar America. The original Mels burger spot cam to his attention and was leased prior to its demolition. Crews descended on the site and soon it was lights...camera...action...all over again. Mels was back in business, immortalized in 35mm.
Out on the parking lot, Ron Howard, Candy Clark, Richard Dreyfuss, Mackenzie Phillips, Harrison Ford, Cindy Williams, Paul LeMat, Suzanne Somers, and Charlie Martin Smith took their first steps to future stardom.
As the bulldozers razed the last remnants of the historic drive-in and trucks carted off the debris, American Graffiti opened in theatres.
Thirteen years later, Mel's son Steven began to grow increasingly nostalgic about his father's defunct dream. As memories of the fities dominated his imagination like a jukebox replaying the same old record, he tried to dismiss the thoughts. A lifetime of experience in the restaurant business told him that any attempt to resurrect the Mels idea wouldn't be easy. His father agreed, actively discouraging the idea. Fortunately, Steven persisted. When partner Donald Wagstaff confirmed interest with his own commitment, the path to reclaim a Northern California legend was clear.
At the grand re-opening in 1985, Steven's fondest wishes were realized: former teenagers who once dined at the first Mels were now re-visiting with their families. Weary of tasteless road food, they wanted to show their kids a glimpse of what the "good times" were really like--long before the age of video games and compact disc players. With the drive-in as backdrop, customers related their early years of love and romance--how they first met at Mels--dated, and ultimately got married!
Mels was back on the charts with new locations on Frisco's Lombard and Gary Street. Two more opened in Los Angeles--joined by full-scale replicas (complete with food service) at the Universal theme parks in Florida and California. Weiss had the Mels name officially trademarked in 1985 and now, it continues to take on a life of its own. Rightly so! After all, Mels Drive-in is the burger, the French fry, and the milkshake. It's playing a joke on friends by unscrewing the top of the salt shaker and ketchup cap. Mels is the howlin', prowlin', Wolfman Jack...the phase-shift echo heard when walking past a row of roadsters tuned to the same raucous station. It's the haunting sound of an electric guitar banging out the "chunka-chunka" rhythm of "Green Onions" while cruisin' the circuit in a little deuce coupe, hair slicked back in a ducktail. Mels is the generic haven for the automobile, the youthful hangouts fondly remembered, along with one's first car, first date...and first kiss.
This passage is an excerpt from Michael Karl Witzel's book The American Drive-in, published by Motorbooks International, WI, 1994.