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Wednesday, July 25, 2018

This 1950s Coffee Shop Is Back, Baby! (Or, The Penguin Lives!)

The original Mel's Drive-In restaurant, as famously featured in American Graffiti, may have been demolished in 1976 just three years after the movie came out, but that was then—and in San Francisco.



This is now—in Santa Monica—and the ubiquitous Mel's chain is still proliferating here in Southern California.


Google Street View circa 2011

In addition to its long-running locations on the Sunset Strip, in the historic Max Factor building in Hollywood, and along Ventura Boulevard in the Valley, the latest Mel's to grace the LA area has rescued a 1959 Armet and Davis-designed coffee shop from the dregs of dentistry and orthadonture. 


circa 2017

And that means that for the first time since 1991—when the original business there, the Penguin Coffee Shop, closed its doors—the public can enjoy this midcentury masterpiece without opening up and saying "Ah."


circa 2017

I first got to explore the property at the corner of Olympic and Lincoln Boulevards last year, on a bus tour of LA Googie architecture hosted by pop culturist, journalist, and Mid-Century Modern historian and preservationist Chris Nichols.


circa 2017

At the time, the penguin was still perched atop the old neon sign...


circa 2017

...but he'd been stripped of his tuxedo and was just a shell of what he once was.



But now, as of Summer 2018, the Penguin is back, baby! And although Mel's is a different business entirely, keeping the figure on the sign is a nice hat tip to the history of the place.


circa 2017

Of course, Mel's had originally planned to open in this spot a year before. But what restoration project ever completes on time?



Now, Mel's is called a "drive-in," but you can really only drive to it—you have to walk in.


circa 2017

And when you do, under that classic pitched roof and past a panel of flagstone...



...you cross one of the many spots where Route 66 has ended over the years, as marked by a lovely terrazzo floor inlay.


circa 2017

Inside, the flagstone that was once covered in drywall has now been exposed...



...and, as at any good 50s diner, a jukebox has been added.


circa 2017

The picture windows out front may have the same view of cars exiting the freeway and revving their engines at the red light...



...but now, you can wait out the rush with a burger and a beer instead of a shot of novocaine.


circa 2017

And instead of listening to whichever "soothing" doctors' office overhead music the hygienists chose for the day...



...you can choose your own tunes for 25 cents (quarters only)—including, of course, the option of the entire American Graffiti soundtrack (a double album!).


circa 2017

The antiseptic front desk, with its faux-wood formica laminate...



...has given way to a tiled counter for solo diners and several taps of craft and local brews.


circa 2017

What had been converted into examination rooms for the tenure of the dental practice has been returned to kitchen and bathroom facilities.



And so lives on the legacy of one of the most prominent practitioners of "Coffee Shop Modern" architecture (now known as Armet Davis Newlove, still in business and also responsible for the design of the Sherman Oaks Mel's).

As does, of course, The Penguin.

Related Posts:
The Coffee Shop That Welcomes You To LA (And Sends You Off With A Smile)
Photo Essay: A Hollywood Diner Campaigns for a Hollywood Candidate
The Oldest Bob's Big Boy, And Its Nearby Adoptive Brother
Farewell, Circus Drive-In