Editor's note: The article has been updated to reflect the closure of Retro Dairy Mart.
California’s first drive-thru burger stand is credited to In-N-Out Burger’s first location, which opened in Baldwin Park outside Los Angeles in 1948. Over 70 years later, its drive-thru lines are just as popular — and as long — as ever.
But in the advent of the “car craze” of the 1940s through ’60s, In-N-Out wasn’t the only game in town. Many businesses of all different types catered to car culture which necessitated either plenty of parking or an experience for those who were “on the go” and didn’t want to leave the comfort of their own cars.
The result? Drive-thru dry cleaners and laundromats, gas stations, pharmacies, liquor stores and nearly everything in between. There are still drive-thru wedding chapels in Las Vegas!
Of course, SoCal car culture has changed over the last several decades, with freeway overpasses bypassing many of the roadside businesses on the surface streets below.
But there are still a few historic adventures you can have in Southern California from behind the wheel. And they can feel as fresh, novel and, well, convenient as they did when they first debuted.
Whether you’re looking to fill your belly, whet your whistle, or escape reality for just a couple of minutes (or a couple of hours), here are the best adventures you can drive to, through and into in Southern California.
Your options go way beyond fast food! So fill up your tank, wipe off that windshield, roll down your window, and get ready to cruise into SoCal’s car-obsessed past.
1. Mission Tiki Drive-In, Montclair
In the mid-20th century, the drive-in craze more or less coincided with the tiki craze. They pretty much emerged, peaked and waned at the same time. But Mission Tiki Drive-In didn’t start with a tropical theme. In fact, it first opened as the "Mission Drive-In" in 1956 as a 9-acre, single screen drive-in that was the brainchild of William Oldknow. About 40 miles east of Downtown Los Angeles, the area — the far outskirts of any major city, surrounded by orange groves — was then known as the Monte Vista tract. Monte Vista was incorporated as a city that same year, but it was renamed Montclair in 1958.
An open-air market (a.k.a. swap meet) was added to its daytime operations in the 1960s. In 1975, the original screen was demolished and the drive-in theater was multiplexed. Upon its 50th anniversary in 2006, Oldknow’s daughter Teri rebranded it with a tiki theme with input from renowned tiki artist Tiki Diablo, who added an Easter Island-type moai statue garden and redesigned the ticket boots with tiki masks and thatched roofs. The snack bar and restroom building were redone as well and are still in operation.
The 2006 rebranding and renovation also phased out the window-mounted car speakers in favor of broadcasting sound on the FM dial. Now expanded to 27 acres, it shows double features of first-run movies on four screens, seven days a week — and will continue to do so at least through Summer 2020. Unfortunately, in 2019 Mission Tiki was sold to a developer to turn it into a "technology park." Until that happens, you can still load up your folding chairs and blankets or simply recline your seats and put your feet on the dash and watch a movie or two under the stars. Pack a picnic and get there early to eat your meal. Gates open an hour before showtime, which gets later or earlier in conjunction with the daily time of sunset.
Bonus: Although Mission Tiki Drive-In is the only tiki-themed drive-in movie theater, there are a few others throughout Southern California that continue to hold onto the car culture of the 1950s and ’60s. The owners of Mission Tiki also operate the Van Buren Drive-In Theatre in Riverside and South Bay Drive-In in San Diego. Also open is the Rubidoux Drive-In Theatre in Riverside and soon to follow are Vineland Drive-In in City of Industry and Paramount Drive-In in Lakewood. Check with the drive-in for individual policies before you go.
2. Carhop Dining, Various Locations
More SoCal experiences behind the wheel
Carhops never completely went away in SoCal. Bob’s Big Boy in Toluca Lake has offered it consistently since it first opened in 1949 — though perhaps nowadays people haven’t taken advantage of it much other than on Friday nights for the Classic Car Show cruise-in event. But you can drive past its 70-foot neon sign and park under the canopy behind this Wayne McAllister-designed coffee shop for breakfast, lunch or dinner any day or night of the week. And the Bob’s Big Boy Broiler (formerly Harvey's Broiler in 1958 and Johnie's Broiler from 1968-2001) in Downey has followed suit with increased demand.
It has been a long time since Mel’s Drive-In in L.A. area locations actually encouraged you to actually drive in and eat in the parking lot — the same way that made Mel’s famous in the 1973 film “American Graffiti,” which was set in the late 1950s. Now, three Mel’s locations — the Sunset Strip, Sherman Oaks, and Santa Monica — are busting out their window-mounted tray tables and taking orders outside while “oldies” from the fifties blast out of a mini jukebox. Turnaround time is quick, refills are unlimited, and you can park and eat at your leisure. The Armet and Davis-designed Santa Monica location, built in 1959 as the Penguin Coffee Shop, is even bringing back roller-skating waitstaff on a limited basis.
The Downtown Anaheim location of Ruby’s Diner only just opened in 2010, but from the very beginning, it offered carhop service. Unique to this location of the chain that originated in SoCal are roller-skating servers outfitted in retro, red-and-white pinstriped uniforms — and a big parking lot to accommodate plenty of cars. You can also find servers rolling past at Frisco’s Carhop Diner, whose City of Industry location is available for event rentals and whose catering business offers the restaurant’s “world famous” carhops (the skaters) for off-site parties. A new location is under construction on Whittier Boulevard in Whittier, with drive-thru service open now and carhop service to be added soon.
Bonus: Angelo’s Original Drive-In Hamburgers took over for one of the locations of the Burger Chef chain in Anaheim in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that it introduced carhop service, which it has been offering ever since. In fact, Angelo’s has become synonymous with having waitstaff on wheels, even featuring images of rolling servers on its huge neon sign. In a rush? A drive-thru take-out window is also available.
3. The Donut Hole, La Puente
If there was ever any question before, it’s now been unequivocally confirmed that donuts are essential. And fortunately, there are plenty of shops in SoCal where you can get your “essentials” on the go. But none more thrilling than where you can drive through the hole of a larger-than-life donut! The Donut Hole has been in continuous operation in La Puente since 1968 and is one of the few remaining examples of “programmatic” roadside architecture — or a building sha