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MEL'S MMM-MEMORIES DINER TO SERVE UP ITS 'AMERICAN GRAFFITI' PAST IN HOLLYWOOD.

Byline: Brent Hopkins Staff Writer

HOLLYWOOD - Oscar's coming home to Hollywood, massive signs a la New York's Times Square have gotten the green light and even empty shells of buildings like the old Max Factor headquarters have started to get a face lift.

Could tawdry Hollywood really be making a comeback?

The latest vote of confidence comes today with construction starting on converting a garage in the building that was once home to filmdom's leading makeup artist, Max Factor, into a Mel's Drive-In, once the setting for the popular film ``American Graffiti.'' The Factor building itself is being turned into a Hollywood history museum.

``We saw the rejuvenation coming years ago, and I think this is the place to be,'' Mel's owner Steven Weiss said Monday, looking out at the cars streaming down Highland Avenue. ``Hollywood's coming back. Big time.''

Mel's will be on Highland Avenue just south of Hollywood Boulevard, diagonally across from the $615 million taxpayer-subsidized TrizecHahn project that will be home to the Academy Awards ceremony.

It is ground zero for Hollywood's revival hopes with the grand opening of the shopping-entertainment complex planned for November.

Elsewhere along the fabled street and the sidewalk lined with stars, the former ABC studios on Vine Street will soon undergo a $50 million update to create office space.

The corner of Hollywood and Vine, formerly associated with fledgling stars being ``discovered,'' is in the midst of a revamping, which by spring 2003 will yield 95,000 square feet of retail space and 300 apartments.

Disney's restoration of the El Capitan Theatre down the street played a critical role in starting what has become a wave of redevelopment.

Mel's, which has locations on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood and Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, is just a small piece of the puzzle but symptomatic of the flow of capital into Hollywood and the growing confidence of investors.

The new location simply extends that relationship in the historic Hollywood cosmetic center, Weiss said. Though opening restaurants is an old task to Weiss, the latest incarnation of the all-night hangout brings out the excited kid, just like when he jerked his first soda in his dad's original namesake drive-in in San Francisco.

``We're putting a Mel's Drive-In in Max Factor's garage,'' he said, breaking out into an uncontrolled giggle. ``How cool is that?''

As workers pored over plans and yanked pipes into line Monday, Weiss toured his new haunt, animatedly pointing out where the glass diner counter will go, gesturing in the direction of the vast kitchen and bakery that will fill the back portion of the space. Though the new spot is on a fast track to open, from a barren building to up and running in little more than four months, plans have been in the works for years, as Weiss scouted out the location.

``We didn't want just anything in Hollywood,'' he said. ``We like going after locations that are more than just a simple storefront. I used to drive by this building all the time and think what a great location it was.''

Intrigued by the possibilities of bringing Mel's late-night eats to the famed neighborhood, he met with Donelle Dadigan, who purchased the building in 1996.

She'd already undertaken plans to convert the majority of the 43,000- square-foot structure into an entertainment history museum, but was being choosy about which restaurant she partnered with.

Chasen's Diner, a Los Angeles elite hangout for years, was originally the announced tenant, but the company filed for bankruptcy and withdrew.

``Two of the greatest exports we have are entertainment and American home-style cooking,'' she said. ``It's just like mom's kitchen, though I wish my mom's had been outfitted like (this.)''

Won over by the retro concept and a french fry recipe she describes as the best in the world, Dadigan set the ball rolling for Weiss to open up. After keeping the project under wraps for the past nine months, the pair has scheduled its official groundbreaking ceremony for today.

The drive-in's history is an unusual one, begun in 1947 in San Francisco by Weiss' father, who lent his name to the chain. Inspired by car-hop restaurants in Los Angeles, the elder Weiss opened a chain that spread quickly throughout Northern and Central California.

By the 1970s, however, the chain had fallen into disarray, bought by an out-of-state operation that watched it die off. Steven Weiss gave it a second shot in 1985, against his father's advice, and the concept caught on. With its San Francisco locations prospering, it expanded to Ventura Boulevard in 1989 and then to Sunset Boulevard in 1996. A third location operated in Woodland Hills for a short time before it was closed.

``I look at them as the 21st century version of the classic drive-ins we used to have in L.A. long ago,'' said Andrew Harris, West Coast representative for the James Beard Foundation and producer of radio station KABC-AM's (790) food program.

``Mel's has reinvented that concept. They're insanely popular in San Francisco, and even though there's some tourist visibility from 'American Graffiti,' it's a place the locals feel is special. What better place for a new one than Hollywood?''

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4 photos

Photo:

(1 -- 2 -- color) Hollywood History Museum President Donelle Dadigan and Mel's Drive-In President Steve Weiss plan to put a Mel's in the Max Factor Building garage, above. Below, the Mel's on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood.

(3 -- 4 -- color) Inside the Max Factor Building, inset, is an atrium where Mel's Drive-In diners will chow down on burgers, fries and milkshakes.

Evan Yee/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jun 26, 2001
Words:934
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