Monday, August 6, 2012


Director, George Lucas standing between a '58 Impala & a '66 Citroen across the street from Mels.
When it comes to eateries, the name "MELS" instantly strikes a familiar chord with anyone who is a fan of George Lucas' classic, American Graffiti.  The original drive-in that was a distinctive element in the 1973 film, is sadly, no longer standing.  However, thanks to the everlasting popularity of Lucas' tribute to his teenage years, the intriguing original structure, that once stood in a large parking lot in San Francisco, has become an icon and will continue to be the object of intrigue, fascination, and appreciation, for folks like myself, for a long, long time.  So, it is with this self-professed “obsession” that my next two entries in Kip Pullman's American Graffiti Blog will be the subject of, (and a tribute to), the original MELS DRIVE-IN.


Anyone who has seen the 1973 film, American Graffiti remembers the large neon sign buzzing in the background exclaiming, Mels Drive-in.  Burger City or Mels was the hub of the gang's activities and the place where the kids in the film converged. At the beginning of Graffiti, the main characters are all introduced one-by-one, as each shows up at the local carhop drive-in.   Even though the story allegedly takes place in Modesto, California, the scenes at the carhop eatery were actually filmed at the very first Mels drive-in, formerly located at 140 South Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco, California.

A few days before the grand opening
Although Texas was fertile ground for the very first drive-in restaurant, the state of California is where the concept first really took off.  Warm climate made eating in one's car convenient, consequently most drive-ins in California first appeared in the southern portion of the state.  However, in 1947 when the post-World War II economy was booming, Mel Weiss along with San Francisco lawyer and politician, Harold Dobbs opened the first drive-in restaurant in San Francisco.  The plans for the building were created and completed by Bay Area architect, Mario L. Gaidano on August 15th, 1947. The actual building of the drive-in may have been completed by Harold Dobb's father who was a professional carpenter. The grand opening of the enormous restaurant took place two days before Christmas on December 23, 1947.

Mel Weiss (far right) & unidentified others stand proudly at the entrance of the new restaurant.

 In a 1991 interview with the Modesto Bee, Mel Weiss recalled that when the carhop eatery first opened they only expected modest success.  However, much to their surprise the restaurant was a hit from the start.  "We did $120,000 the first month," he recalled.  If Mr. Weiss recollections are correct, the drive-in’s first months gross almost paid for the cost of building the entire restaurant. The cost of building the super drive-in was approximately $135,000.

The original location of Mels drive-in was at 140 South Van Ness Avenue near Mission Street and was the perfect location.  It consisted of ample grounds, attractively landscaped with the capacity for 110 cars, and a two-story rectangular building.  The distinctive Streamline Moderne structure had great expanses of glass that wrapped around the circular dining portion of the building and a foundation of orange tile. It's round shape suggested the mobility of a flying saucer ready to spin off into outer space.  And, like the aerodynamic wing of a jet, a roofing canopy (with smooth edges and recessed lighting) stretched alongside the rectangular portion of the building to cover cars. During the later part of the 50s, the appearance of automobiles with flared, rocket-like tailfins were a perfect match for the building’s mobility imprinted design.

With an indoor customer capacity of 75 people, the interior was typical diner style with plenty of Formica tabletops and booths framed in chrome and upholstered with orange Naugahyde. 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, dishwashers, and servicemen were part of the Mels staff that kept their business thriving.
Circa 1958
 As many as 14 girl carhops prompted fast service and many repeat customers.

The 1948 fire map above shows that Mels drive-in (highlighted area) was surrounded by a used car dealership, service station, welding shop and other businesses with streets that received plenty of traffic.  The property included a huge parking lot to accommodate many customers.

The second Mels in San Francisco at 5199 Mission St. near Geneva.

Motivated by the success of their first drive-in, in July of 1951 Mel Weiss and Steve Dobbs opened their second Mels located at 5199 Mission St. near Geneva in San Francisco. About two years later the 3rd Mel's in San Francisco opened for business.  
Located at 3355 Geary Blvd. near Beaumont St., the drive-in employed Weiss' son, Steven who worked as a soda jerk during high school would later be inspired to open a Next Generation Mels drive in in the exact location where the original once stood.

In the mid-1950s California became the North American state with the highest rate of car ownership in the nation. Witnessing the growth of the automobile culture, Mel Weiss and Harold Dobbs began expanding the San Francisco-car service based restaurant into a successful chain.  

 By 1954 the Mels franchise was pulling in about $4 million annually. It was estimated by Weiss that they were cooking up 15-20,000 hamburgers a day.  But, the menu consisted of many more items than just the MelburgerAlong with the proverbial beverages, desserts and fountain specials, the Chicken Pot Pie for .85 cents was a popular item. In fact, the choices of American-style food were almost endless. Depending on the individual restaurant location, one could order Half Fried Spring Chicken (like mother used to make), Roast Young Tom Turkey, Fried Jumbo Prawns, a Chef's Salad Bowl, Thick Top Sirloin Steak & Eggs with potatoes or sandwiches such as the Mels' Pore Boy, (with a full pound of choice ground beef on a quarter loaf of French bread served with salad).   

The 3rd San Francisco Mels located at 3355 Geary had it's grand opening on 3/12/1953

 Waitresses at the Mels on Geary Blvd pause to smile for the camera. The location became a Pacific Stereo store for many years beginning in the late-1970s, but then reverted to it's iconic self once more in 1984, before the turn of the century.

Mels became a fixture of contemporary life, with lurid neon lighting, carhops, and a pre-fast food menu. During the 1950s and '60s you could find one or more Mels drive-ins located throughout Northern California, in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Sacramento, San Jose, Walnut Creek, and Salinas.    
A typical billboard advertising 3 Mels locations in San Francisco.  circa 1950s

At one point Mels also ran several bowling alleys and restaurant complexes including a franchise of Mels Jr. restaurants.  Mels also branched off into a second chain called KINGS.  The Kings restaurants were located on the Peninsula south of San Francisco. 
Mels @ 16th & E. Santa Clara, San Jose, CA.
 Mels Bowl @ 2580 El Camino, Redwood City, CA. (Opened:1960.  Closed: 2011
On April 21, 1952 the third Mel's opened for business. This time in Salinas, CA. It was known to local teenagers in Salinas as "Mel's Valley in the Sky Drive-In." The picture was taken in 1955. The 909 South Main St. location is now a Burger King.   photo: Andy Southard

During the 1950s Mels' was a thriving franchise and was an example of capitalism at its best however, as the end of the decade had begun to give way to the turbulent 1960s, the reputation of  Mels Drive-In was not to go unscathed.   To find out more click on the Mels menu below to go to part 2.

  • Bayer, Patricia. Art Deco Architecture. London: Thomas and Hudson, Ltd., 1992.
  • Burger Chain Delivers Mels on Wheels Cruising Modesto. The Modesto Bee.  Oct. 5, 1991.
  • California Living Magazine, November 20, 1983.
  • Freeman, Jo. From Freedom Now! to Free Speech: How the 1963-64 Bay Area Civil Rights demonstrations Paved the Way to Campus Protest.  Website.  Retrieved 8/13/2012. 
  • Freeman, Jo. At Berkeley in the Sixties: Education of an Activist, 1961-1965. Indiana University Press
  • Hurley, Andrew. Diners, Bowling Alleys and Trailer Parks. New York: Basic Books, 2001.
  • Mels Drive-in Web Page.  Retrieved 8/12/2012.
  • Obituaries. San Francisco Chronicle. August 18, 1994. H. Dobbs, Began Famed Drive-in Eatery.  Sun  Retrieved 1/27/2013.
  • Online Archive of California; Specialty Real Estate Web Page. Retrieved Sept. 6, 2012.


  1. What is the large flat rectangular building behind Mel's Drive In, the large neon sign is mounted on this building wall? Anything to do with the diner, or is it another business, perhaps the welding shop shown in the land plat?

    1. The large flat rectangular building is part of Mels Drive-in. I looked at the original plans. The bottom floor included bathrooms, the kitchen, and food storage. The second floor included employee lockers and offices.

    2. Kip how did you find the original building plans for Mels? I'm trying to find historical photos and sites of Mels drive-in. Do you have any suggestions?

  2. Mel'so was used in place of Modesto infamous Burgess Drive Inn which was no longer in existence at the time Lucan made the film. Burgess was located at 9th & O Streets where Rainbow bread is now.

  3. Did the Mels at 140 S Van Ness simply close and sell? Or did a sadder fate befall that American icon?

    1. Victoria thanks for your question. If you read part 2 I explain it's demise. Or, select this link & paste it into your browser. Then read the post:

      This should answer all your questions.


  4. Can someone tell me who played the female carhop who toward the end of the movie, tries to convince Steve (Ron Howard) to come to her place?

    1. The sexy, tight-bloused carhopwaitress in American Graffiti is Jana Bellan. I have a small bio on her on our "Bit Parts and Pie Pieces: Before & After" post:

    2. Thank you, Mark / Kip.

  5. What was the several story (7?) building behind Mel's? Offices or a factory of some sort? Thanks. Great site...

  6. Me and my dad went their all the time , and then it became a frut stand then abandon ,

  7. That is the photographers t-bird in the Salinas picture. Had a buddy drive it through.


  9. hi mark, what a great resource this article is! thank you. i wonder if there is a chance to see the original plans of Mel's drive-in (those plans you mentioned above)? michael

    1. Hi Prof. I viewed the original plans on microfitch at the SF library. In order to print them one must get permission from the owner. Problem is the location is now an 11-floor, 212 unit high rise luxury condominium development. So there are 212 owners whom I suppose I need permission from each. I'm sure there's a way around this but I haven't investigated yet. Thanks

    2. hi mark, thank you for the quick answer. i learnt, that the plans were featured in a book on architecture. but my source couldn't remember the title. in the meantime i bought me a scale model to get the overall proportions, but still looking for the most detailed plans.

    3. Hi mark, i am still trying to get hold of the plans/blueprints and wonder, if you could point me to a ressource? SF Library librarians did their best, but couldn't find it. Do you have a signature?

  10. anyone have blueprints or dimensions for the building??

  11. Is sad to see big building ti condo remplace this icon restaurent...

  12. Oh thank you! I’ve been trying to figure out the exact location of the American Graffiti Mel’s for a while. I wasn’t sure if it was at the triangular shaped property at Mission & S. Van Ness or mid block where 140 S. Van Ness is.
    The 1948 fire map ends all debate. Look closely at reflections in the Mel’s window in the movie and a Midas Muffler is visible. A 1972 phone book shows the Midas at 165 S. Van Ness. This is only a hundred feet or so from being directly across the street from Mel’s. It all matches up.

  13. i was shocked to hear about the civil rigfhts protest on youtube
    and on your website. if only the blue prints or map of MEL'S
    DRIVE IN and arnold's drive in are Avaliable so both can be built
    in new york and california with rules like NO SLIPPERS, NO PAJAMAS, NO PANTS DOWN, AND NO HOMELESS PEOPLE
    ALLOWED. there should also be vintage cars appeareing inb
    both joints when customers are coming. there even should be
    a prequel to the AG Movie like GREASE -RISE OF THE PINK
    LADIES tajing place three years before the movie if only
    the writers strike never happened! cindy williams was supposed
    appear in the prequels series but now she's gone...RIP.

  14. When I was in highschool in Modesto Ca in the 60’s we all hung out at Al’s on McHenry!

  15. I've got some pictures of Mel's from back in the 50',s when my mom worked there if interested let me know

  16. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Hi "Anonymous" Sure if u have old pics of Mels I'd love to see 'em. You can contact me at,