Bob’s Big Boy Is a Los Angeles Icon because of the Car
Photography by Jonathan WC Mills for Petrolicious
Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank was listed on The Petrolicious Automotive Guide to Los Angeles.
‘Local Legend’ is a phrase that is tossed around quite casually in the modern lexicon, but in the case of historic Bob’s Big Boy Drive-In, located in Burbank, California, the moniker is well deserved.
The restaurant, a greasy spoon, hot-coffee kind of place still inhabits its original building, designed and built back in 1949. This, in a town that enjoys going under the knife at the first sign of a wrinkle. Bob’s has remained, as ever, a relevant gathering place for car people and non-car people alike for close to seventy years. Designated a historic location in 1993, the planar architectural elements, unique design, and oversize neon signage are survivors from a long-gone era, but Bob’s has remained an engaging part of the southern California landscape, due in large part to the machine that enabled its creation: the car.
On Friday nights the neon beacon plays host to a diverse motorized audience from the surrounding region. Like-minded people congregate in an organic fashion to share their cars and enjoy some fried food. The vehicles in attendance range from pristine rotisserie Smokey and the Bandit Trans-Ams and Fastback Mustangs to rugged Dodge 4x4s, BMW 2002s, and lead-sled Cadillacs. It’s a watering hole for socializing, kibitzing, checking out cool cars and connecting with old and new friends. There are kids, adults, teens, greasers and even a struggling actor (not really shocking in Los Angeles) plucking on his guitar’s strings. The social vibe is, for the most part, highly welcoming and in part due to the iconic nature of the spot itself.
The fact is, Bob’s has never been known for its food. Like all of the iconic post-war diners popularized in culture through movies and television it remains quintessentially American. It’s a fantastic representation of the unique rectilinear architectural vernacular, an ode to streamlined dreams of space and wide-open spaces. The restaurant remains an icon to the space-age style of ‘Googie’ architecture; curving windows and enormous cantilevered, over-hanging roofs made of cold steel to shelter diners from the harsh glare of the Southern California sun.
This architectural style was in some ways defined by Bob’s architect, Mr. Wayne McAllister who designed over fifty iconic diners across Southern California. In many, unheralded ways Wayne is an icon of Southern California architecture that has never shared the spotlight with his more famous contemporaries like Mr. Richard Neutra and Mr. Frank Lloyd-Wright. Yet his cultural and architectural contributions extend well beyond coffee shops and diners. He was also responsible for two of the most iconic mob financed hotels in early Las Vegas: The Sands and Desert Inn.
Wayne understood architecture and its unique relationship to the automobile because he drew his inspiration from a culture thoroughly captivated by the car. Post-war America developed a true love of all things automobile, it permeated all aspects of social life and re-defined patterns in food consumption, commuting, dating, marriage and even the way people were buried. The car as a potent symbol of American strength was cemented in the 1950s and Wayne McAllister’s drive-ins and diners helped support and define that love by providing a way to interact with a world in which the car remained a central focus. Bob’s Big Boy’s giant signage, ample parking, and low-slung design are all part of that cultural legacy. In 1949, the three story sign would have been visible a mile down Ventura Blvd. beckoning drivers from a great distance, much like the neon lights of Vegas still do.
The chrome has lost some of its luster for Bob’s and many of the other remaining diners in Los Angeles. Market demands and changing tastes cannot be stopped. And sadly, Wayne’s Vegas hotels have been subsumed into the desert but in many notable ways Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank remains as it was in 1949, and every Friday night it remains a temple to the automobile.
So, if you find yourself alone and looking for some amicable gearheads, hot coffee, decent pie, and cool cars on a Friday night, all served in architecturally significant setting, head down to Bob’s Big Boy.