1670 Lincoln Blvd
Santa Monica, CA 90404
MEL’S IS AN UPDATED TRADITIONAL ROADSIDE DINER
For those of us who are of a certain age, the name Mel’s will forever be associated with the 70’s TV show Alice. A greasy spoon diner with a gum-snapping, sparkplug of a waitress named Flo and a surly, short order cook with a heart of gold named Mel.
But times have changed, and the Mel’s of today is a long-awaited third installment of the family chain with outposts in the San Fernando Valley and on Sunset Blvd in Hollywood. This Mel’s was started long ago in the San Fernando Valley by another cook who had a heart of gold, and today his son and grandsons are running the family business and making their own marks in the food world.
I was one of the first two visitors to Mel’s a few weeks back at their shakedown opening – an event that most restaurants go through where they open the doors to friends and family to test the staff and work out the snafus of operations. Walking in on an early Friday night to the restaurant where the smell of fresh paint mixed with the char of burgers being grilled, made for an enticing aroma. I’ve opened many a restaurant and it’s always an exciting time. The adrenaline is high in the owners and the staff is on edge as they find their way through the maze of supplies, side work, and table layouts.
You enter past a giant aquarium with toy cars and road signs in an homage to the restaurant’s location at the declared end of Route 66. There is literally a sign outside on the traffic signal denoting the end of the historic route. The soaring angled ceiling is a remnant of a grander time in architecture when locations were designed in what was termed Googie, a sort of jet age, modern design that had an element of whimsy to it. Think Norms, Ships, and of course The Penguin. Today the design style is referred to as a mid-century modern, but I prefer the original, Googie.
Looking over the very traditional diner menu, I was struck by the blend of traditional food with modern eating styles, it matches the architectural blend that the family has maintained of updated traditional. I started my sampling with the short rib nachos. They’re amazing. A balanced blend of chips and cheese and pulled apart short ribs that had been braised for hours to reach perfection.
Balancing the salty savory of the nachos, there was clearly only one choice – a butterscotch banana shake. Which was awesome. The flavors were a great mix and I highly recommend it. My dinner companion opted for the avocado toast and had this to say, “Way better than that other place in town.”
My next visit was for lunch, where I had the turkey pesto sandwich – a true winner. The turkey was not some dry, processed product but thick cuts of moist meat, with a delightful accent of pesto over toasted bread. I could do this daily.
Last week I decided to take a meeting at Mel’s with the man-about-town Phil Brock and figured I’d try the bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich with a side of mashed potatoes and gravy. This was a less than inspired sandwich. The bacon was too well done for my tastes – when bacon is cooked to the point of toughness I’m not a fan – some are, not me. The lettuce was the bland white part of the iceberg lettuce and that’s just boring. Mashed potatoes and gravy are an indulgent choice, and they should reflect the richness and body of a comfort food – these didn’t. The potatoes themselves needed to boiled in salted water, and the gravy needed flavor and body – this was more like a too watered down cream of chicken soup.
Back for breakfast this week and I had the Joe’s Special omelet made with turkey instead of the traditional ground beef. It was well executed and flavorful, but there was a disconnect between the kitchen and the server so our meals came out late and cooler than we’d like.
The good news is that Mel’s is open 24 hours, has plenty of parking, and I have no doubt that as the teams settle into their routines the minor problems I’ve noted will be ironed out. This is a new local landmark that has been revived thanks to a family business – a rarity in the republic of Santa Monica these days.
I say Welcome to the Westside Mel’s – We’re glad to have you! I know it was a long slog through the city’s serpentine licensing and permitting process, but you made it.
Mel’s Drive-In deserves 4 stars out of 5. Prices range from $12-18. There is valet parking.