The mid-20th century was a boomtime for burgers, with Southern California emerging as an epicenter of fast-food innovation. In concert with the region’s car culture, hamburger joints featuring drive-thrus, speedy walk-up windows, and drive-in service from roller-skated carhops sprang up all across the Southland. A handful of these vintage restaurants have not only survived into a new century, they have grown into huge global brands. With menus little changed for 60, 70, even 80-plus years, the local chains that endure are those that stick with what their customers really love – classic, high-quality burgers, prepared to order, for a decent price. The charm of authentic nostalgia brightens every order, too, at Southern California’s most beloved burger chains.
Founded: 1948 in Baldwin Park
Signature item: The Double-Double
Locations: 300+ in California, Nevada, Utah, Texas, Arizona and Oregon
The menu: In-N-Out’s “official” menu features only a hamburger, cheeseburger, Double-Double, French fries, milkshakes, hot cocoa and fountain drinks. Burgers come with lettuce, tomato, a choice of fresh or grilled onions, and Thousand Island-like spread. Then there’s the “secret” menu (not so secret given it’s published on the company’s website) which most famously offers Animal Style burgers cooked with mustard and topped with extra spread, pickle and grilled onion.
In-N-Out has a long history, a tiny menu and an enormous following as a true California icon. The first In-N-Out opened in 1948 in Baldwin Park as the state’s first drive-thru hamburger stand. Owners Harry and Esther Snyder committed to purchasing fresh ingredients daily and preparing their burgers by hand. Harry even engineered the two-way speaker box used for the restaurant’s drive-thru, an invention that surely transformed the entire fast-food industry. The Snyders opened three more Southern California locations in the 1950s, and In-N-Out remained a small local chain into the 1970s.
The Snyders’ sons ran the show after Harry’s death in 1976. They expanded the chain into San Diego County, Las Vegas and Northern California, and by the 2000s there were 140 In-N-Out restaurants. By 2005 there were 200 locations, then 300 by 2015. On its 70th anniversary in 2018, In-N-Out counted 334 locations in six states. Today, Harry and Esther’s granddaughter Lynsi Snyder runs the company. In-N-Out was called one of America’s Best Employers by Forbes in 2019.
Fun fact: In-N-Out added hot cocoa to its menu in 2008, the first new item in more than a decade. It’s made with Ghirardelli chocolate, and on a rainy day, kids under 12 can get one for free!
Bob’s Big Boy
Founded: 1936 in Glendale
Signature item: The Original Double Deck Hamburger
Locations: Burbank, Calimesa, Downey, Northridge, Norco, plus 69 other locations outside California
The menu: Bob’s Big Boy is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner and has a lengthy menu focusing on comfort food classics. Its Original Double Deck Hamburger features two never-frozen burgers, lettuce, cheese, mayo and special red relish on a double-sliced bun. Hot fudge cake and strawberry pie are popular dessert items. The restaurant’s dressings, including blue cheese and ranch, are famous in their own right and available in grocery stores.
In 1936, an enterprising young man named Bob Wian sold his car to buy a 10-stool hamburger stand in Glendale previously called The Pantry. He renamed it Bob’s Pantry, saw quick success after creating the signature “Big Boy” hamburger, and revised the restaurant’s name in honor of the best-seller. Wian opened his second drive-in in Burbank in 1938, and in the 1940s started selling franchises. By the time Wian sold his brand to Marriott Corp. in 1967, he had 22 company-owned stores and 580 franchised locations in 38 states. At its peak in 1989 there were more than 240 Big Boy restaurants nationwide.
Following decades of corporate capers, there are only five Bob’s Big Boy restaurants in California today, plus dozens more in other states. The Burbank and Downey venues are protected historic landmarks, considered treasures of midcentury “Googie” architecture. The oldest Bob’s Big Boy still standing is the Burbank restaurant, built in 1949 and famous for its Beatles booth where the Fab Four dined during their 1965 tour. Statues of a cheerful, chubby boy – an early customer who became a symbol of the company – greet diners at these restaurants.
Fun fact: Bob’s Big Boy founder Bob Wian was the youngest ever Mayor of Glendale. He served in the role for just seven months in 1948-49 before resigning due to his business commitments.
Founded: 1946 in Los Angeles
Signature item: The World-Famous Quarter-Pound Chili Cheeseburger
Locations: 31 throughout Southern California plus 3 in Nevada
The menu: Original Tommy’s puts its chili along with cheese on almost every menu item – hamburgers, fries, tamales, hot dogs and breakfast burritos. Topping options including fresh onions, pickles, mustard and hand-sliced beefsteak tomatoes, and you can ask for extra toppings (including chili) for no charge. Chili-to-go is available too.
Original Tommy’s is named after founder Tom Koulax, who opened his first hamburger stand at Beverly and Rampart Boulevards in Los Angeles in 1946. The small stand slowly gained a dedicated customer base, by the 1950s becoming a locals’ favorite with a growing reputation for fast service and top-notch burgers. Koulax expanded his original venue in the ‘60s, and in the ‘70s launched Original Tommy’s as a chain, opening five new restaurants in the LA area. Today there are 31 venues across Southern California, plus three more in the Las Vegas area. Regulars still rave about Original Tommy’s generous portions, high-quality ingredients and exemplary service. The company remains in the Koulax family and is headquartered in Monrovia.
Fun fact: Every Original Tommy’s location makes a fresh batch of chili at least once a day.
Founded: 1952 in South Los Angeles
Signature item: The Original Fatburger with “The Works”
Locations: 200+ restaurants in 20 countries
The menu: Fatburger offers handcrafted, never-frozen burgers, customizable by size (from 1/3-pound medium to 1.5-pound XXXL), quantity and add-ons such as bacon, fried eggs and onion rings. The burgers come as standard with “The Works,” lettuce, tomato, onion, mayo, mustard, pickles and relish. There are also fat fries, skinny fries, sweet potato fries, homemade chili, chicken wings and hot dogs. Milkshakes made to order with premium ice cream are also a menu highlight.
Fatburger was originally Mr. Fatburger, a three-stool hamburger stand launched by Lovie Yancey in 1947. After a business breakup, Yancey bought out her partners, dropped the Mr. and kept the stand’s popular burgers. She relaunched as Fatburger in 1952, and later coined the tagline “The Last Great Hamburger Stand.” A growing franchise chain, Fatburger remained local to California until the 1990s, when the brand expanded across North America and then worldwide. There are now Fatburgers in such places as Tunisia, Singapore, India and the UK, along with 63 restaurants in Canada and 92 in the United States. Its headquarters is in Beverly Hills.