Ultra Swank - Retro Adventures

American Graffiti and Mel’s Drive-In Restaurant

Written by Christopher Alm • September 19th, 2012
American Graffiti and Mel’s Drive-In Restaurant

Bob Falfa and John Milner

Inspired by similar restaurants serving motorists in Los Angeles, Mel Weiss and Harold Dobbs founded Mel’s Drive-In restaurants in 1947 in San Francisco, California. Night and day, hordes of patrons that fancied dining-in-your-car came early and often. It didn’t take long for the first restaurant to multiply into eleven.

In 1972, the original Mel’s located at 140 South Van Ness in San Francisco was selected as a feature location by filmmaker George Lucas for his 1973 coming of age film American Graffiti. Although the movie takes place in Modesto, California, most of its scenes were actually shot in the nearby city of Petaluma.

When filming began, in spite of popular belief, Mel’s Drive-In (aka Burger City) had been not been closed for years and was not slated for demolition either. In fact, Dennis Kay, who was working as director of operations for Foster’s West who were the owners of Mel’s at the time was put in charge to make arrangements for the filming.

We only closed for business on the nights of filming and re-opened the next day. Weeks after filming was completed, they called and said some film had been lost on the cutting room floor, so we had one more night of filming. The only reason this drive-in was selected was because it was the only one of the era that could be found that had trees high enough behind it to block out the modern buildings in the background.

So George decided to lease the location and bring it back to its 1962 look, even if it was just for 2 hours on the big screen. The restaurant remained opened for several years after filming wrapped, but eventually closed up and was torn down by bulldozers. However, the prominent play given to the location has been credited with saving Mel’s from possibly going totally out of business.

Today, several Mel’s Drive-in restaurants still exists around the bay area. The most famous ones are however probably the somewhat cheesy replicas located at Universal Studios in Orlando, FL and Hollywood, CA.

Which is your favorite scene from American Graffiti?

Above: “What about your Double Chubby Checker and Cherry Coke, sir?”

Above: Mel’s Drive-in is featured prominently in American Graffiti

Above: The main cast of American Graffiti

Above: On the set of American Graffiti

Above: Mel’s Drive-in Restaurant circa 1953

Above: Mel’s drive-in circa 1975 — Photo by Carol Ruth Barnes

Above: George Lucas while filming Graffiti

Christopher Alm

Christopher founded Ultra Swank in 2005. Has a crush on mid-century graphic design, defunct airlines, Disneyland and the Century 21 Exposition. Is a collector of easy listening music from the 60s and 70s and a Swedish expat living in Barcelona, Spain.

Find out more about Christopher Alm

  • Certainly a classic.

  • Philippe Gusmão

    Last photo titled Mel´s Drive-in Restaurant was not really taken in 1953, Some cars in the picture are from 1957 and 1958.

  • You are right, the cars look out of place. The only information I found on that photo was 1953, but it must have been taken later judging from the cars.

  • I had no idea that Mel’s was a real place! I added American Graffiti to my Blockbuster @Home queue the other day after one of my co-workers at DISH told me that it depicts the ideal time to be a teenager. I watched it last night, and I loved it! I’m so glad that I was able to watch this movie because it really did illustrate a wonderful time to grow up without any real worries. I can’t imagine that Mel’s was torn down after filming, and it really seems like a loss. When I head over to Cali next, I will be sure to visit one!

  • Ed S

    Back in 1967, I took my first road trip to San Francisco. I knew little about the town. As I cruised around I spotted this round drive-in and had to stop in. Since I was pulling a trailer I could not park at a drive up spot so I parked in the lot. I went inside and sat at one of the booths along the curved glass. I enjoyed one of their famous chicken pot pies.

    I stayed in SF for a year and enjoyed Mel’s often. Had I know what a special place it would become I would have taken some pictures. Decades later I returned for a vacation and went looking for Mel’s but alas it was gone. There is a newer one that looks like an old dinner and the food is still good.

    I was pleasantly surprised to see it in the movie and it brought back memories.

    Ed S

  • ErstO

    I just watched (again) Guess who is coming to dinner, 1967 movie, one scene has Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn going to the same Mel’s Dinner in SF… cool

  • I do believe that’s another Mel’s restaurant in San Francisco. They had several. The one in Graffiti I think was located on Van Ness.

  • My firends and I attened this movie several times, always dressed as the characters. So much fun. I havent watched it since that year.

    Sadly, the Mel’s on Van Ness has been torn down.

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