How California-Born Restaurants Conquered America

From Taco Bell to McDonald’s, Wienerschnitzel to IHOP, most of the food giants that took over the world were cooked up in California. A look back at the origins of the real California cuisine.
1920

There is no corner of America where you can escape the names McDonald’s, Taco Bell, or Denny’s. These food giants, and many more, originated in Southern California and have come to dominate the globe. IHOP started on Riverside Drive in 1958, but today that pancake empire stretches from Burbank to Bahrain. In his new book, Made in California: The California-Born Burger Joints, Diners, Fast Food & Restaurants That Changed America (Prospect Park Books), chef George Geary tracks down the origins of old favorites like See’s Candies and Orange Julius that have grown so large they’ve been snapped up by Warren Buffet. It also highlights California’s culinary breakthroughs, from sesame seeds on burger buns to ice cream cakes to the whole concept of Sunday brunch. Restaurants have been reinventing Mexican food here since L.A. was part of Mexico, and the book shares local origin stories for iconic dishes like nachos, tableside guacamole, combination plates, and even dueling tales over which local spot created Taco Tuesday.

The 1921 birthplace of See’s Candies on Western Avenue reopened as an outlet of Seoul-based Tom N Tom’s coffee in 2012. When Geary visited the renovated neoclassical building, he asked the barista if she had ever heard of See’s. She was unaware of the brand until one of her colleagues chimed in, “Oh, I think that’s the place with the old lady on the box of candy, right?” Geary teamed up with the company to place a plaque at the location earlier this year to mark the company’s centennial.

Geary has his own pop-culture culinary credentials. He created the giant corn dogs served on Main Street at Disneyland and baked endless prop cheesecakes for TV’s The Golden Girls. His 2016 book, L.A.’s Legendary Restaurants, explored the elegant dining spots of old Hollywood with tales from the Cocoanut Grove and the Brown Derby, but after hearing Julia Child gush about McDonald’s french fries and Anthony Bourdain proclaim that the best burgers come from In-N-Out, Geary came to understand the connections between L.A.’s fine-dining and fast-food kingdoms.

Los Angeles has always been a place to reinvent yourself. The McDonald brothers came here to get into the movie industry and ended up selling hamburgers, starting in 1948. Verne Winchell hawked used cars before opening his namesake doughnut shops that same year. Many of these classic restaurants started as mom-and-pop joints, the same kind we love celebrating in our annual Best of L.A. issue. Perhaps one of this year’s picks will be the next breakout hit.


The Brown Derby

(Est. 1926)

brown derby

Photo from the collection of George Geary

Located across the street from the Ambassador, the city’s swankiest hotel, the Brown Derby was the buzziest celebrity restaurant of the 1920s, designed by a set designer, financed by studio executives, and haunted by the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Joan Crawford. The Brown Derby was also the birthplace of the Cobb salad, owner Bob Cobb’s salmagundi of greens, tomato, chicken, bacon, eggs, avocado, and Roquefort, all mixed together tableside.

Taco Bell

(Est. 1962)

COURTESY YUM BRANDS INC

Glen Bell was a student at San Bernardino High when the McDonald brothers first came to town in 1940. The fast-food entrepreneur, inspired by their success, combined their efficiency with the hard-shell tacos he enjoyed in the Inland Empire and created the world’s biggest Mexican fast-food chain. His first Taco Bell (above), opened in Downey in 1962, is preserved at company headquarters in Irvine.

IHOP

(Est. 1958)

ihop

COURTESY DINE BRANDS GLOBAL

Filmmaker Al Lapin was cruising around Burbank in 1958 when he noticed people lining up to get into Bob’s Big Boy. The building across the street was for rent, so he borrowed money, came up with breakfast specialties like Tahitian Orange Pineapple pancakes, and a star was born. The original IHOP is long gone, but people are still waiting in line for a meal at Bob’s.

Lawry’s

(Est. 1938)

COURTESY LAWRY’S RESTAURANTS INC

Lawry’s has been the cornerstone of Restaurant Row in Beverly Hills since 1938, but the founding families created a food empire that goes back well over a century. Starting with homemade potato chips, the Frank and Van de Kamp clans baked generations of breads and treats at their Glassell Park plant, made seasoning salt and spices at their California Center test kitchen, and even produced a line of frozen fish sticks—still available in your grocer’s freezer.

Wienerschnitzel

(Est. 1961)

COURTESY GALARDI GROUP, INC.

John Galardi (pictured) was barely out of high school when he stumbled into a job at a Pasadena taco stand owned by Glen Bell. He quickly rose through the ranks while saving his money. Bell leased the young manager a piece of land in Wilmington, with the stipulation that he could sell anything but Mexican food there. (Bell already had an idea to put his own name on the next taco stand he opened.) Galardi’s Der Wienerschnitzel #1 became a City of Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument in 2013.

In-N-Out Burger

(Est. 1948)

in-n-out
Photo courtesy In-N-Out

At the end of World War II, the farmland outside of L.A. was quickly transformed into new suburbs, and freeways began stretching out in all directions. Harry and Esther Snyder (pictured) relocated from Seattle to Baldwin Park in 1948 and built a tiny drive-through hamburger stand near their new home. Harry created the two-way speaker in his garage, and Esther did the books. The original stand was claimed by the 10 freeway, but a replica was built nearby for the company’s 65th anniversary.

Hot Dog on a Stick

(Est. 1946)

hot dog on a stick

Courtesy Global Franchise

If you’ve ever been to its 1946 location (originally called Party Puffs) at the beach in Santa Monica—or to one of its outlets at an indoor mall or the L.A. County Fair (where  there are eight!)—you’ve probably noticed the colorfully dressed staffers dipping dogs and stomping lemonade. Katy Perry even wore the iconic red, white, yellow, and blue stripes during her performance of California Gurls at the Super Bowl.

Baskin-Robbins

(Est. 1945)

baskin robbins

COURTESY BR IP HOLDER LLC

Burt Baskin had Burt’s Ice Cream in South Pasadena. Irv Robbins owned Snowbird Ice Cream in Glendale. Burt married Irv’s sister, and the brothers-in-law built the largest chain of frozen-dessert shops in the world. The early stores were pink, brown, and white, representing cherries, hot fudge, and whipped cream. Burt’s original store on South Lake Avenue is still a Baskin-Robbins, 75 years after serving its first scoop.


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