Santa Monica’s Penguin Coffee Shop Is Being Restored

The 1959 Googie style restaurant will become a Mel’s Drive-in

After spending the last 25 years entombed beneath a dull drop ceiling and the beigest of beige drywall, Santa Monica’s vintage 1959 Penguin coffee shop is being restored to its Googie glory. The jaunty-roofed dining room was designed by architects Armet & Davis (you know their work from Norms, Pann’s, and Johnie’s on Wilshire) and served up burgers and malts for generations before the building became a dentist’s office in 1991.

The former Penguin coffee shop in Santa Monica
The former Penguin coffee shop in Santa Monica, today

Photograph by Chris Nichols

Mel’s Drive-in owner Steven Weiss recently signed a long-term lease for the café at the corner of Lincoln and Olympic and plans to add it to his chain of restaurants. “We’re so excited to bring back this Googie style building,” Weiss said. “And be able to serve customers in a beautiful restaurant 24 hours a day.” Weiss has previously opened Mel’s locations in the historic Max Factor building in Hollywood, and rehabbed two other midcentury coffee shops: Kerry’s in Sherman Oaks, and Ben Frank’s on the Sunset Strip.

Original 1959 architectural rendering for the Penguin Coffee Shop in Santa Monica
Original 1959 architectural rendering for the Penguin Coffee Shop in Santa Monica

Photograph from the collection of Armet Davis Newlove architects, courtesy Santa Monica Public Library

The original Penguin featured high ceilings, huge windows, and sparkling terrazzo floors—all of which Weiss plans to include in the new Mel’s, which will also feature a juice bar, craft beers on tap, and phone charging stations at every table. “We’ll have a lot of vegetarian items and a lot of salads, plus grass-fed burgers and a full soda fountain,” Weiss said. “And my grandma’s chicken soup.”

Word of the restoration comes just after the destruction of another modernist building by Armet & Davis. The former Tiny Naylor’s restaurant in Beverly Hills was demolished last week so that Metro could store equipment on the site during construction of the Purple Line. It’s welcome news that the Penguin coffee shop won’t face a similar fate any time soon. Weiss predicts opening next May. “You know, Mel’s has been around for 69 years,” Weiss said. “And we’re going to celebrate our 70th in that location.”

Preservation consultant Adriene Biondo goes over plans with Mel's owner Steven Weiss
Preservation consultant Adriene Biondo goes over plans with Mel’s owner Steven Weiss

Photograph by Chris Nichols

Penguin Coffee Shop in Santa Monica, circa 1960
Penguin Coffee Shop in Santa Monica, circa 1960

Photograph from the collection of Armet Davis Newlove architects, courtesy Santa Monica Public Library

Penguin Coffee Shop in Santa Monica, circa 1960
Penguin Coffee Shop in Santa Monica, circa 1960

Photograph from the collection of Armet Davis Newlove architects, courtesy Santa Monica Public Library

Trying out samples of terrazzo at the former Penguin coffee shop in Santa Monica
Trying out samples of terrazzo at the former Penguin coffee shop in Santa Monica

Photograph by Chris Nichols

Original flagstone hidden behind drywall at the former Penguin coffee shop in Santa Monica
Original flagstone hidden behind drywall at the former Penguin coffee shop in Santa Monica

Photograph by Chris Nichols

Penguin Coffee Shop in Santa Monica, circa 1960
Penguin Coffee Shop in Santa Monica, circa 1960

Photograph from the collection of Armet Davis Newlove architects, courtesy Santa Monica Public Library

Penguin Coffee Shop in Santa Monica, circa 1988
Penguin Coffee Shop in Santa Monica, circa 1988

Photograph by John Eng

Penguin Coffee Shop in Santa Monica, circa 1988
Penguin Coffee Shop in Santa Monica, circa 1988

Photograph by John Eng

Historian Adriene Biondo at the Penguin Coffee Shop, 1988
Adriene Biondo at the Penguin Coffee Shop, 1988

Photograph by John Eng

Original artwork inside the Penguin Coffee Shop, circa 1988
Original artwork inside the Penguin Coffee Shop, circa 1988

Photograph by John Eng

The former Penguin coffee shop in Santa Monica
The former Penguin coffee shop in Santa Monica today

Photograph by Chris Nichols

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