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 shaped as the object it’s selling. The design of this particular behemoth of baked goods has been credited to the architectural trio of John Tindall, Ed McCreany and Jesse Hood.
The genius of The Donut Hole is that you don’t just drive through one giant fiberglass donut — but two, connected by a tunnel that houses the kitchen and the take-out window. Line up in your car and wait your turn to enter the tunnel of dough, where you can start to smell the confections as you catch a glimpse of what’s fresh. Maybe an apple fritter or an old-fashioned raised or jelly, or one of the more modern additions to the menu, like one that’s topped with cereal —which means, of course, that it can be both breakfast and dessert.
If you prefer to get your baked goods on foot without the red glow of brake lights ahead or the hurried flash of high beams behind, there’s a small lot where you can park and use the walk-up window. But go you must, to experience a living relic of a defunct donut chain that’s one of the most-photographed donut shops anywhere.
Bonus: Although you can’t drive through them, you can drive under a few other big donuts in SoCal — most famously the original Randy’s Donuts in Inglewood, which has both walk-up and drive-thru windows under the shadow of its rooftop icon. It’s been operating as Randy’s since 1976, but it was originally built in 1953 as part of the “Big Do-Nut Drive-In” chain. Other surviving Big Donut locations operating under new names include Kindle’s Donuts (the oldest of the lot), Donut King II, Dale’s Donuts and Bellflower Bagels.
4. Broguiere's Farm Fresh Dairy, Montebello
The San Gabriel Valley — and the larger Los Angeles metropolitan area — has a kind of on-again, off-again relationship with Montebello Sanitary Dairy, a.k.a. Broguiere’s Farm Fresh Dairy products like glass-bottle milk, chocolate milk and eggnog in the holiday season. A Southern California staple since 1920, Broguiere’s offers milk that’s so fresh, the slogan says, “The Cow Doesn’t Know It’s Missing.” We’ve had a couple close calls wherein it seemed that Broguiere’s would be shuttering forever. Fortunately, the public outcry has been so strong each time that the doors have flung back open — and a century later, the dairy operations continue today.
You can purchase Broguiere’s “Real Cowlifornia Milk” (sourced from off-site farms since 1972) in those iconic deposit bottles at large grocers like Gelson’s, Bristol Farms, Vons, Pavilions, Ralphs and Sprouts, but there’s nothing like getting it directly from the source by rolling up the driveway of its Montebello storefront and getting it as directly from the cow’s udder as you can get! But note that there’s no car service, so you’ve got to get out and walk to the counter. The location is the same as when the dairy’s founder Ernest Broguiere, an immigrant from the French Alps, first set up his Holstein cows after his lemon grove failed.
Still family-owned and operated — now in its fourth generation — Broguiere’s is open Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. In addition to the glass-bottled milk — which aren’t always returned for the deposit, as they’ve become collectors’ items — the drive-in dairy also sells bread, butter, eggs, orange juice and other kitchen staples.
Bonus: The drive-in dairy that was once widespread throughout Southern California, Alta-Dena, has mostly disappeared from our roadsides. But some of those corner convenience stores have been resurrected, like the Burbank location, rebranded Retro Dairy Mart in 2015. The vintage Alta-Dena sign now lives at Valley Relics Museum in Van Nuys, but the new vintage-styled dairy operates out of the original building that Alta-Dena occupied starting in 1962. In addition to Alta-Dena dairy products, you can also get coffee and donuts, snacks and sundries, all from the driver’s seat of your own car. (Update: Retro Dairy Mart has announced its closure July 18, 2020
In the City of El Monte, you can still find the former Driftyland Dairy-Port drive-in on East Lower Azusa Road, now operating as Driftwood Dairy. It’s a roadside attraction even for the lactose intolerant thanks to its Googie-style parabolic arch (circa 1961) and eye-catching, freestanding pole sign. Drive under the canopy, as Drifty the Cow smiles down upon you, and be transported through the space-time continuum in a vehicular shopping experience that still may be one of the most modern in the world.
5. United Oil Car Wash, Los Angeles
Given its history at the nexus of car culture, it's no surprise that L.A. would have its fare share of fabulous gas stations — from the recently landmarked 76/Unocal station in Beverly Hills (circa 1965) to the "Helios House" ARCO station (formerly BP, circa 2007) at Robertson and Olympic. But there’s one L.A. gas station that offers a car wash worth taking the long way home: the United Oil at La Brea and Slauson in the View Park-Windsor Hills community of Los Angeles. With a final project cost of about $8 million, it was the most expensive United Oil station when it was completed in 2009.
At that cost, it’s not just any car wash. Designed by the Santa Monica-based firm Kanner Architects to resemble — or at least approximate — the feeling to a freeway ramp, it's a Tomorrowland ride into the sky, a millennial version of Googie that takes the "drive-in" concept to a whole new, curvilinear level. Of course, much of its appeal is an optical illusion. You don't actually drive on the roof from the concrete on-ramp and across the steel canopy above the gas pumps. The ramp simply ascends and descends up, above and down behind the gas station market.
If your car needs a wash, and it will, at least eventually, you might as well make it interesting rather than a chore, and this is one car wash you should drive through before you die. It’s a slice of retro-futurism that’s otherwise endangered in Southern California, as space-age landmarks fade into the sunset — and disappear with the wrecking ball.
Bonus: If you need to keep yourself or your kids entertained while in the line for the drive-thru car wash, look no further than the dinosaur-themed Green Forest Car Wash. Its five locations in the L.A. area provide car-washing services that include options like the “Bubblecano Wash” and “Jungle Wash” — some in a certifiably Jurassic setting, like the ones in Bell Gardens and on Florence Avenue in South L.A.
Top image: Bob’s Big Boy Broiler | Sandi Hemmerlein