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[whitespace] Bob's Big Boy
Photograph by Stephanie Diani

The Real McBoy: The first Bob's Big Boy still stands proud in Burbank, serving burgers 24 hours a day.

Big-League Burgers

Bob's Big Boy is the real deal, a chunk of history honoring the '50s car culture without pretense

By Joseph Izzo Jr.

ON MY WAY BACK from St. Joseph's Medical Center in Burbank, where my father lay ill, I drove past an old buddy from the '50s. There was Bob's Big Boy, that cherubic goofball in the red-checkered overalls, icon of my teens, symbol of the famous double-decker hamburger. Just as big as I remembered him, he seemed to smile down on me--beckoning.

The sight somehow bolstered me; hell, I was starving, and the thought of a Big Boy with a load of fries hit me right between the eyes, like a flash of the Holy Grail. I pulled into a stall in the carhop section, ordered an original double-decker, a chocolate milk shake--so thick you could stand a pencil upright--fries, onion rings, then another hamburger. Everything was delicious, everything the way I remembered, when I was 16 and driving a Volkswagen without a muffler.

Bob's Big Boy Restaurants once flourished throughout California, even in San Jose (where the one on Winchester was made famous when a man was shot while having a Big Boy). Ask anybody who lived in the San Fernando Valley and they'll tell you about the legendary site on Van Nuys Boulevard where we stopped for sustenance after a night of cruising and nefarious socializing. It was our place to get comfortable and assuage our teen angst, see friends and enemies, meet girls from other high schools, girls with sprayed hair, and some who even hid razor blades beneath the crusty piles. It was fun--and never, ever boring. "The kids used to steal the milk shake containers," says Beverly, who worked as a carhop in 1950. "And the spoons too," she added, "to make bracelets."

With the advent of fast food, of McDonald's, Burger King and the Jack, Bob's found it hard to survive, even though, in my opinion, it served (and still does) a superior product. Its popularity slowly faded and its many locations began to close one at a time, until now only a few remain, the best of all being the original on Riverside Drive in Burbank. As one man waiting for his check said, "This was the place, the beating heart of everything I remember."

According to the menu, this site was built in 1949 by locals Scott MacDonald and Ward Albert and designed by architect Wayne McAllister, though it was Bob Wian who created the concept and enforced the strict standards of quality that still exist today. In 1993 this restaurant was designated as a California point of historical interest. And well it should be. The look of this place combines the streamlined modern style of the '40s with the free-form coffee-shop architecture so popular in the '50s, a look currently undergoing of a full-blown revival.

But Bob's is no affectation. No hackneyed retro hamburger house, no Johnny Rockets or Mel's Diner with a face-lift. Big Boy is the real McCoy, a chunk of living history honoring the '50s car culture without pretense. The place is bright, busy; the tables, the counters are jammed with people from all corners of the human strata. I saw seniors navigating the aisles with walkers, rockers with green hair and pierced nostrils, even babies doing what they always do, throwing food onto the floor. And it's loud. Voices fill the rooms like music from a thousand speakers. Bob's is real.

The main reason I came here to begin with, even when I was a punk without a clue about cuisine, was for the burger. Give me a Big Boy, I used to say, then leave me alone. It's not huge, or messy, or layered with unseemly gobs of condiments that pour from the bun and camouflage true flavors. The Big Boy is a tidy sandwich that fits easily into the hand and has good wholesome flavors. As my companion commented on my third visit, "It's the perfect bite," she said after cutting hers in half and pointing out the details of the double-decker construction. "Not too big and fits into the mouth without a mess."

All the ingredients are fresh, the beef real, the sesame seed buns soft outside, toasted slightly inside. And the dressings are applied with a light hand. Open the bun and check it out. This hamburger was carefully thought out, and I believe was the prototype for the Big Mac, and like the Mac, it's built with two beef patties (maybe not as thick as you like, but adequate) separated by a custom bread divider and dressed with Bob's famous relish on one end, mayo on the other. You get a slice of American cheese, warm and soft, not melted into plastic ooze. The ingredients are plain and simple and don't assault the palate (as so many burgers do today).

I like the classic burger just the way it comes, but you can add things like avocado and chili, a favorite of my friend Dennis (who used to arrive there in a mean Chevy Nomad), or sans condiments altogether, or perhaps with only butter and onion, the way my father, in better days, used to enjoy his. The original Big Boy Combo ($5.49) is the best introduction to Bob's. It comes with about two handfuls of fries (crisp, not greasy) and a salad topped with one of their famous dressings, the blue cheese, tangy and rich--my favorite. Chili spaghetti ($5.19), still on the menu (in fact a classic), was always a dish that read like a nightmare but tasted like a sweet dream. And it still does. Think of it as a coffeeshop rendering of pasta bolognese, with chili con carne ladled over somewhat soggy noodles, then finished with melted American cheese. It's not haute cuisine--it's rich, fatty comfort food.

All the beverages my juvenile friends and I used to gulp are still on tap. You can have your Coke with chocolate, cherry or vanilla blended into poetic libations and served in big fountain glasses full of ice. The chocolate milk shakes ($2.89) remain archetypal concoctions that are thick and frosty and mounded high with whipped cream, then crowned with a maraschino cherry. And that's not all. What's left in the blender--and there's plenty--gets served on the side in a stainless steel fountain container (the ones that used to get ripped off).

Sooner or later Northern Californians reluctantly visit Los Angeles. There's Universal Studios, Disneyland and the Getty Museum, plus sundry other attractions. If you find yourself here one day making the rounds, drive over to Bob's in Burbank, the original and a historical landmark. On your way to a table, look up at the wall near the waiting area. You'll see black-and-white photographs of movie stars who loved this place as well as anybody. William Holden's up there, with a smile so wide he almost looks like the Big Boy himself.

True, although Bob's does have far fewer locations these days, it seems that he's as big as ever. Need proof? Witness the recent radar sighting of him in Austin Powers. To my mind, that's undeniable evidence that, in any currency, the old Boy remains as sound as a pound.


Bob's Big Boy
Cuisine: Classic American burgers
Address: 4211 Riverside Drive, Burbank
Phone: 818.843.9334
Hours: 24 hours a day
Extras: Carhop service Sat.-Sun. 5-10pm

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From the October 21-27, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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