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Legendary burger mascot ‘Big Boy’ was first created for Bob’s Pantry in 1936 by Bob Wian in Glendale, California. Courtesy photo
Legendary burger mascot ‘Big Boy’ was first created for Bob’s Pantry in 1936 by Bob Wian in Glendale. Courtesy photo
Columns Hit the Road

Hit the Road: ‘Made in California’ chronicles history of homegrown food chains

My husband and I make it a ritual, during our road trips to Arizona, to stop in Quartzsite on Interstate 10, about 10 minutes past the California-Arizona border. Three reasons: to stretch our legs, fill our tank with cheaper Arizona gas and buy a Sugar-Free French Vanilla Iced Coffee at McDonald’s.

After my first brain freeze, I sip the drink slowly so it lasts ‘til Tonopah.

I’ll be honest: I’m not a fan of the McDonald’s menu, but I do have at least one reason to keep the Golden Arches in my nostalgia basket.

As a kid, I once rode the train from New York to Indiana with my grandmother. When we arrived in Elkhart, she bought me and my brother a McDonald’s milkshake — then 50 cents and made with real ice cream. After a hot and sticky ride in an un-air-conditioned train car in July, we thought we’d died and gone to heaven.

I’m guessing there are many such memories that involve eateries and traveling, but probably less thought to the origins of our favorite pit stops like McDonald’s, Del Taco, Sizzler, In-N-Out, Winchell’s Donuts and A&W Root Beer. But all of these and more have one thing in common: They were founded in California.

A serendipitous encounter got food historian, California native and chef George Geary thinking about this.

“I was in Wilmington (a neighborhood near the Port of Los Angeles) and I drove by a strange Wienerschnitzel,” he said during a phone interview from his Los Angeles home. “I noticed a plaque that said it was their first location. I didn’t know that Wienerschnitzel had started here.”

Sometime later, while teaching in Lafayette, Indiana, Geary noticed a sign on the interstate that listed 24 places to eat at the next exit.

“Twenty-two of them had their start in the Golden State,” Geary writes.

Thus “Made in California: The California-Born Burger Joints, Diners, Fast Food & Restaurants That Changed America,” was born.

The 250-page, oversized hardcover is chock-full of the history of 50 familiar, favorite and not-so-favorite restaurants.

The chapters, organized by the year these uniquely American establishments were founded, can be read in no particular order, but check the table of contents and find your faves first.

Lawry’s Restaurant, founded in 1938 in Beverly Hills, had servers dressed not unlike nurses. Their uniforms actually took inspiration from the Harvey House chain. The current-day eating experience includes prime rib served in huge Airstream-like serving carts and elaborate meat-carving shows put on by carvers who train for six months. Courtesy photo
Lawry’s Restaurant, founded in 1938 in Beverly Hills, had servers dressed not unlike nurses. Their uniforms actually took inspiration from the Harvey House chain. The current-day eating experience includes prime rib served in huge Airstream-like serving carts and elaborate meat-carving shows put on by carvers who train for six months. Courtesy photo

There are the ultra-familiar like those listed above, and the not-so-familiar like NORMS Restaurants and Hinky Dinks. There also are those with unfamiliar beginnings that have morphed into the well-known, like Snack Shop (Coco’s Restaurant and Bakery); The Blimp (Carl’s Jr.); Party Puffs (Hot Dog on a Stick); and Burt’s/Snowbird Ice Cream (Baskin-Robbins).

Each chapter contains sidebars with particulars pertinent to that chain: founding date and name; original location and whether it has survived; milestones; most popular and original menu items; items that failed; and slogans.

The book also holds voluminous historic photos that document the eateries’ founders, their early days, and snapshots of American culture, which has permeated the world as well as the lives of the rich and famous.

“Anthony Bourdain loved In-N-Out burgers and Julia Child loved Costco hot dogs and McDonald’s fries,” Geary said. “They gave me permission to come out of the kitchen and into the drive-thru.”

Geary holds dear a memory of rare visits to Fosters Freeze (began in 1946 as Foster’s Old Fashion Freeze) with his accountant father, who died while Geary was writing the book and to whom the book is dedicated.

“He taught me how to eat a chocolate-dipped cone without dripping it all over myself.”

For more photos and commentary, visit www.facebook.com/elouise.com.

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