When Mel Weiss opened the first Mel’s Drive-In in 1947, California’s postwar car culture was in its infancy. The Golden Gate Bridge was barely a decade old, and the restaurant’s original location—long since demolished—was on a motel-filled stretch of U.S. 101 that San Francisco residents now know as Lombard Street. The joy of pulling off the road for a burger was still a novelty.
More than seven decades later, there are eight locations of Mel’s: four in San Francisco and four in Los Angeles. In honor of the diner mini-chain’s 75th anniversary next Wednesday, Dec. 14, Mel’s grandsons Colton and Chasen Weiss will revive a set of menu items at 1947 prices. You can get a burger and fries for $4.24, buttermilk pancakes for $3.13, coffee for $.73 and a Coke for a buck.
“There’s a cool photo of my grandparents Mel and Miriam opening Mel’s and cutting the ribbon,” Colton Weiss told The Standard. “We’re going to be re-creating that shot with Mom and Dad and my brothers.”
Mel Weiss died when his grandsons were young, and Colton recalled stories of his grandfather loving the open-air carhops of 1940s Los Angeles and later moving to Northern California to replicate the concept.
“People thought, ‘no way you could have that style of business in San Francisco, because the weather’s crappy.’” Weiss said. “My grandfather sure showed them wrong.”
Over the years, Mel’s famously appeared in George Lucas’ American Graffiti. As popular tastes have evolved, Mel’s has added things like a Double-Double-esque smashburger to its menu and converted its Van Ness Avenue location to a more upscale concept, dubbed Mel’s Kitchen (which is still going, although it later dialed back luxuries like caviar).
Weiss is actually a fourth-generation restaurateur, as his great-grandfather, Jack Weiss, opened burger counters inside Walgreens in the 1930s. He’s careful to note that Mel’s is authentic.
“You have other restaurants that are ’50s themed,” he said, a derisive note creeping into his voice. “We started in ’47, so it’s way back when. When people come to Mel’s, they’re just transported back in time to that era.”
Although Mel’s is known for comfort foods like a patty melt or short-rib grilled cheese, celebs seem to love it. The Los Angeles locations have hosted two parties for Al Pacino, and the chain has a considerable following among hip-hop stars.
“Snoop Dogg was a regular of ours during the pandemic, coming in with his lowriders and cool ’60s Chevys and this thing called the Rider Gang,” Weiss said, noting that the video for Snoop’s “Roaches in My Ashtray” was shot in a Mel’s parking lot. “They were coming in every single Sunday: Xhibit and Cypress Hill. It was like a ’90s rap video. Wiz Khalifa got a Mel’s tattoo across his thigh.”
The original San Francisco location may be gone—the one on Lombard today was built later—but the one that holds Weiss’s heart is in the Inner Richmond, just west of the Geary Boulevard Tunnel.
“When you go through the tunnel, Mel’s is just shining, and it’s got all the free parking, and you can pull in and eat,” Weiss said. “I love that location. My dad was a soda jerk there.”
🕑 Dec. 14
📍 Various locations
Astrid Kane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org