Forty years ago, director George Lucas immortalized Mel’s Drive-In in American Graffiti.
Fifty years ago, if you happened to be stumbling out of a club along the Sunset Strip in the wee hours, and your eardrums were still vibrating from a long night of listening to what would become rock history, and your stomach implored you to add nourishment to your revelry, chances are you might wander a bit east to 8585 Sunset and Ben Frank’s brand new coffee shop—open 24 hours—for a session of comfort-food scarfing and people-gazing.
Today, all Angelenos know the place as a Mel’s Drive-In location, because director George Lucas retrofitted and used the San Francisco location of the chain in his 1973 classic, American Graffiti (the film celebrates its 40th anniversary this year). But back when it was just Ben Frank’s, it was a casual palace of Googie design, built a half century ago by architects Lane and Schlick. The building featured stylistic touches of the future: geometric angles, steel beams, and an altered A-frame roof. It was an audacious establishment run by Arthur Simms, who moved to LA after World War II and operated the MGM commissary for a time.
Luminaries such as Frank Zappa, The Rolling Stones, Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, and Phil Spector occupied booths there. It’s rumored that the group Buffalo Springfield was formed in the parking lot. In 1965, a casting call that ran in Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter for performers who would become The Monkees asked for “spirited Ben Frank’s types.” In Ron Jeremy’s autobiography, he mentions signing autographs for Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain there.
The Mel’s chain took over the space in 1997 and changed the vibe to reflect American Graffiti’s sense of nostalgia. The inscrutable countenance of a young Lucas hugging a movie camera and wearing a USC Trojans letterman’s jacket looms large across one wall, along with other stills from the movie. But there are also framed photos of a new era of creatives, like Diddy and Lindsay Lohan. No matter the year or the star wattage, the site itself forever remains a monument to LA’s fast cars, fast food, small talk... and big dreams.
PHOTOGRAPH BY SILVER SCREEN COLLECTION/GETTY IMAGES