When the coronavirus pandemic shut down his restaurants, Colton Weiss knew that to survive, he would need a creative (and safe) solution to keep serving his customers.
So he started thinking like his grandfather.
Weiss’ grandfather, Mel Weiss, was the first to bring carhop dining — in which waiters bring a restaurant order directly to people in their cars — to San Francisco in 1947.
The popularity of carhop dining evolved in America in tandem with the popularity of the automobile itself, predating the fast-food drive-through and reaching a peak in the years following World War II. The elder Weiss had seen the roller-skating, poodle-skirt-clad waitresses delivering trays of burgers and shakes to diners seated in their Buick Roadmasters and Chevy Aerosedans at eateries across Los Angeles.
So he took a chance and introduced the concept to Northern California, importing the kitschy carside service to his very first Mel’s Drive In location, at 140 South Van Ness Avenue, and securing Mel’s Drive In a place in car culture history.
By the 1960s, Mel’s, like diners and dives across the nation, had retired its carhop service. But this spring, with indoor restaurant service banned in California and diners wary of stepping beyond the sanitized sanctuaries of their homes and cars, the younger Colton, who now owns the company, decided to also take a chance.
He brought the carhops back, and soon dozens of other American eateries followed suit. In doing so, he is serving up more than just burgers and fries on his carside trays. He is serving up portions of much-needed nostalgia.
“I always wanted to bring back the carhop,” said Weiss. “It just transports you back in time back in the ’50s. And when coronavirus first happened, I immediately thought: ‘How can we provide the Mel’s Drive In experience with only pick-up and delivery?’ “
Mel’s is now offering carhop service at its Geary Street and Lombard Street locations in San Francisco.
In Los Angeles, the service is offered at the Sunset Boulevard, Santa Monica and Sherman Oaks locations — all marked by the iconic, Jetsons-esque Googie architecture that evokes the Space-age optimism of the American midcentury.
Weiss declined to offer revenue figures, but one look at social media proves the immense popularity of Mel’s carhop dining: Snoop Dogg, Wiz Khalifa and Cedric the Entertainer have adopted a Saturday night pandemic ritual of meeting at Mel’s Drive In Sherman Oaks.
The pals, who have a car club they’ve dubbed #ridergangcruising, meet at the one Mel’s location in their respective cars before driving down to Mel’s Drive In on Sunset Boulevard, where they order carhop dining in the parking lot — each from his own vehicle.
Khalifa even went so far as to get a fresh tattoo on his leg bearing the words “cruise life” and a detailed image of the Mel’s Sunset Boulevard location. “Dedicated to my Saturday cruise #cruiselifecc” he wrote on Instagram when he shared the image of the new ink.
But while carhop dining is new for Khalifa and his crew, many of the chain’s most loyal fans have a long history with the practice.
“We have people in their sixties and seventies who are bringing their kids to share the experience, because they want to relive their younger years,” said Weiss. “And we also have people who have just seen carhop dining in the movies and want to try it for themselves.”
Weiss is not alone. Carhop service was a midcentury trademark of restaurants such as Mel’s and Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank, California, which has also revived the practice.
Little Anthony’s Diner, a Tucson institution, and the Historic Steer-In, which first opened in Indianapolis in the 1930s, have restored the practice. And in the face of Covid-19, a number of younger restaurants are also trying out the service for the first time.
They include JT’s Diner in Willoughby, Ohio; Dubois Diner in DuBois, Pennsylvania; OMG Burger and Brew in New Jersey (where the new carhops are dressed in old-school poodle skirts); and Broadway Diner in Baraboo, Wisconsin, a restored 1954 Silk City diner that turned its parking lot into a carhop service during the pandemic.
At the Brownstone Pancake Factory in Edgewater, New Jersey, an over-the-top diner known for its massive platters and desserts, is also trying out carhop dining for the first time. It’s a move, said owner Bobby Bournias, that has saved the restaurant in a time when so many locally owned eateries are going under.
Bournias had to shut his indoor dining room in March but continued to offer curbside pickup. By late April, he noticed that many of his customers weren’t pulling away from the parking lot after receiving their food. They were sticking around and eating in the car.
“I just had this flash of, ‘Wait a minute,’ ” he said. “I started thinking of old school movies, and immediately went online and ordered carhop trays.”
(Not all restaurants offering carhop service provide carhop trays, which clip onto the car door when the window is rolled down. But those that don’t often offer a cardboard box that diners can position on their lap if eating in the car.)
He also went online to hire a handful of professional roller skaters and a DJ, and kicked off his carhop service in early May with a socially distanced party in his restaurant’s parking lot. As New Jersey’s lockdown has eased up, he is now able to offer outdoor patio dining, but the carhop service remains popular.
“Carhops are what allowed me to survive this whole situation,” he said. “I feel like our customer base loves us more than ever because we’ve been able to figure out a way to make this period of time enjoyable.”
And for the handful of American restaurants that already had carhops in position when the pandemic hit, there has been no Covid-19 slowdown.
Sonic, the only remaining national drive-in chain, has seen a huge influx in business throughout the pandemic — the company declined to offer statistics on its revenue, but a study from TopData positioned Sonic as America’s current favorite fast food restaurant, ranking above Wendy’s, McDonald’s and Taco Bell.
At Mac’s Steak in the Rough in Albuquerque, New Mexico, carhops have been serving diners since the old-school eatery opened in the 1960s.
“During the Covid-19 shutdown, we did see many families and friends choose to ‘eat together’ by parking at side-by-side hops,” said LeeAnna Fresquez, Mac’s president and owner.
Nostalgia on the side
The popularity of carhop dining, said Daniel Levine, a trends expert and director of the Avant-Guide Institute, is about nostalgia for a simpler time, but also speaks to one of the longest and proudest American traditions: the love of the car.
“Americans have a long history of in-car dining, whether it’s at a carhop with window service, or pecking out of a fast-food bags,” he said. “This country’s RV culture shows that we are not only happy to eat in our vehicles, we sometimes take the entire living room with us.”
During a pandemic, Levine added, the car has come to serve another critical purpose for Americans: it’s a safe space that allows diners to get out of the house while still staying protected.
“Cars are the ultimate PPE,” he said.