May 17th 2023, San Francisco.
If you’re staying on Lombard, the best place to have breakfast is Mel’s Drive-in Diner at Cow Hollow. It’s at the bottom end of the street, the Marina end, which itself leads onto San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge about two miles away. I just knew Mel’s was going to be so good that I left it till my last morning in this impossibly beautiful city.
It did not disappoint.
I swung open the entrance door — all glass and polished chrome — and walked inside. Carlos is there, behind the till. “Hi and welcome to Mel’s,” he says.
I am enveloped immediately in a wonderworld of Americana — stainless steel, chrome and more chrome and, facing me right inside the door, a Wurlitzer jukebox, all lit up and banging out period appropriate music. In front of the bar counter, there a row of one-legged bar stools, with the backsides of occupants rippling over the seat edges. All along the counter are little mini-Wurlitzers where patrons can chose their favourite background sounds — Hank Williams, Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, and, of course, Elvis (he lives nearby, I believe).
The bar counter runs front to back down the centre of the restaurant, which faces onto Lombard. Out the side is a parking lot. Years ago, waiting staff on roller skates used to serve patrons sitting in their cars. Not any more, sadly. The other wall, inside the restaurant is covered in big blow-up, black and white photos from the ’40s and ’50s. The men are all heavy overcoats and fedoras; the women have baggy long trousers and wear shades. The scenes mostly show people arriving or leaving places — nightclubs or political gatherings, maybe — or standing by a car, all bulbous fenders and oozing cool.
At the back is the kitchen. The hob hood has sunburst polished steel panels. The chefs busy themselves cranking out plates of pancakes and eggs — “over easy sir? Comin’ up!” — bacon and toast.
Carlos takes my order. Two eggs over easy, I say, bacon, hash browns and coffee. Toast? he says. You want toast? Yes please, I reply. White or brown? Brown, I say.
“You got it!”
“The first Mel’s opened on December 23rd 1947, at 140 South Van Ness” Carlos tells me, at my asking. The diner featured in George Lucas’ 1973 film, American Graffiti, whose Burger City was actually Mel’s Drive-in. Mel’s is even on the movie’s promotion poster. Competition in the 1970s drove Mel’s out of business but Steven Weiss, a son of one of the founders, revived it and there are now eight outlets, in San Francisco, Hollywood and Los Angeles.
Carlos — who is Carlos Alexander Martinez — runs my Mel’s and does a smooth job orchestrating the seating and serving. The place is buzzing with locals and tourists but on this Wednesday morning at 9.15, mostly locals, I think.
Just then, Jessica sits down beside me at the bar. That’s Jessica Quinlan (43). “I’m from Missouri,” she says just after ordering the first of what was to become two large glasses of champagne.
“I’m out here for a bunch of concerts,” she says and we fall — plunge might be a better description — into conversation. I’m so sucked into the riot that is Jessica’s rock and roll life that my over-easys and hash browns get cold and I never even get around to trying the toast.
“I’m here for a bunch of concerts,” she explains. “Last Thursday we [the ‘we’ is her and her boyfriend, Ben, ‘he grows weed’] we left Columbus Missouri and went to Billy Idol in Kansas City and then went to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena for the Just Like Heaven festival. Tomorrow, we’re gonna see Gary Numan. I dunno if you know him. He sang the song Cars. [I tell her I know the song.] That’s in Petaluma, California. Saturday, we’re at the Cruel World Festival [which is back at the Rose Bowl]. Wednesday we have The Cure — I can’t wait for that!”
Jessica used to be a dental assistant and at some stage also had a restaurant and an art gallery.
“But now I’m on disability [$1,400 a month, she says]. My ex-boyfriend tried to kill me. I had, like, kidney and liver failure and I have vocal cord damage,” she said, explaining her husky voice.
“Are you going to have breakfast,”: I ask her.
“Nah, just champagne,” she answers. “I’m gonna take a shower and head to LA.”
She’s staying at the nearby Chelsea Inn hotel, a choice on her part that was preordained by the script.
“You like champagne in the morning,” I ask.
“I do,” she says emphatically. “I like beer too.”
We then have a political conversation. Jessica loathes Trump and all that comes with him and all that he represents about America right now and the way he and his supporters are affecting everything.
“They want women pregnant and in the kitchen,” she says. “They don’t want the gay people. I live in a country where so many people say ‘we live in the greatest country’. I’m sorry. You can pull a duck’s neck as long as you want but you’re still not gonna have a swan.”
For that phrase alone, I will love Jessica for ever. She downs what’s left of her second glass and waddles off to her Chelsea hotel, and me to check out of my hostel.
Mels? Like I said, best breakfast in San Francisco.
Published first by The Irish Times, May 21st 2023.