Photos: The Gorgeous Googie-Style Penguin Coffee Shop Will Be Resurrected As A Mel's Drive In
When you ponder L.A.'s architectural history, you may think of craftsman bungalows, case study houses, or restaurants that are shaped to resemble the food being served (the term is "mimetic architecture"). But don't forget the collection of Googie-style buildings that are mostly associated with old-school diners. Think: Pann's, the various Norm's, and the former Johnie's that has been featured in everything from Reservoir Dogs to The Big Lebowski.
Among this collection is the former site of Santa Monica's Penguin Coffee Shop at the intersection of Lincoln and Olympic boulevards. Built in 1959, the shop served up traditional diner fare like corned beef hash and eggs benedict. And, according to this Etsy listing of an old menu, the "Penguin Special Breakfast" included eggs, three hot cakes, and a choice of either ham or sausage. The building itself, however, may have been the main attraction. It had all the accoutrements of Googie architecture, from the wide, slanting roof, to the kooky lettering on the sign outside.
The restaurant, unfortunately, closed and became a dentist's office in 1991. That office, too, shut its doors this August, and now it looks like the building's Googie past will be revived as it's slated to become a new Mel's Drive-In. According to a report filed with the Santa Monica Planning Commission, this new Mel's location (there are three others in L.A.) will add an outdoor dining patio facing Lincoln Boulevard, as well as some "minor exterior modifications." The report goes on to state that, aside from these modifications (as well as renovation of the sign), there will be "no other substantial changes to the existing building are proposed."
This is great news, obviously, as the building is a clear testament to one of L.A.'s most cherished design motifs. The building was a product of architects Louis Armet and Eldon Davis, who were responsible for many of the Southland's Googie diners (their projects included the Mel's building on Ventura Boulevard, and the aforementioned Johnie's, among others). Their firm had reportedly worked on over 4,000(!) Googie restaurants. As noted by the Los Angeles Conservancy:
In Los Angeles, Armet and Davis combined elements of futurism with the city's car culture to produce eating establishments with undulating forms, dramatically angled roofs, dazzling signage, and glass expanses.
Yet function was at the core of Armet and Davis' designs. Whether for individual locations, small chains, or national franchises, they created practical solutions for their clients—from time-saving open kitchens to economical uses of materials in new ways.
While the decor will likely nod at history, the new menu at the Santa Monica Mel's may add a new-age take. Steven Weiss, owner of Mel's, told LA Mag that the restaurant will "have a lot of vegetarian items and a lot of salads, plus grass-fed burgers," as well as phone-charging stations at every table. He added that they'll also dish out his "grandma's chicken soup," possibly to offset some of the 21st century vibes. Weiss expects the restaurant to open next May.