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In unusual twist amid development boom, Mel’s Drive-In will not be torn down for housing

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Customers are handed their lunch while dining at the original Mel’s Drive-In Diner on Geary Boulevard in San Francisco, Calif. Monday, April 18, 2016. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

In an unusual twist in San Francisco’s development boom saga, a longtime diner that was slated for demolition and subsequent conversion into apartments or condos will remain unchanged for the next two decades, the San Francisco Examiner has learned.

Mel’s Drive-In in the Richmond District is the only remaining restaurant of the eponymous chain that occupies its original site in The City. The beloved 1950s-themed diner opened at 3355 Geary Blvd. in 1952 and closed in 1972, but reopened in 1988 as part of the next generation of Mel’s Drive-In restaurants.

Four years ago, the property changed ownership for the first time in at least six decades, and the new owner sought to tear down the Mel’s and construct a mixed-use building in its place.

But the three owners of the Mel’s chain — including Steven Weiss, son of Mel Weiss who founded the original Mel’s Drive-In restaurants in the 1940s — pushed to keep the restaurant open after an unsuccessful search for a new site in the Richmond.

The restaurant owners gathered 50,000 signatures of customers who wanted to keep the restaurant in place, and after years of negotiations with their new landlord, the owners last week signed a 20-year lease that allows the diner to stay open as-is.

“We’re really excited,” co-owner Gabriel Mendez said. “Our customers are really happy. The staff is really happy.”

The new rent, which Mendez declined to disclose, increases by about 35 percent, making the Geary Boulevard diner the most expensive lease of the chain’s four San Francisco locations.

There are also three Mel’s Drive-In diners in Southern California, and the owners are planning to open a fourth in Santa Monica next year.

“This restaurant has always been one of our best restaurants, even way out here away from everything,” Mendez said of the Richmond location. “We just have so many regulars that are in here seven days a week, twice a day. They’re like family.”

Planning for the mixed-use building at that site reached as far as an environmental review, which the Planning Department launched in October 2014. The project included a four-story building with 23 residential units, 33 parking spaces for cars and more for bicyclists.

Despite incentives by The City to build taller and denser — Mendez said their landlord was told he could construct up to seven stories — as part of an effort to increase the number of homes in San Francisco amid a regional housing crisis, Mendez said there will be no construction at the site for new homes.

“With the pro-development and the push to build housing in The City, to be able to pull this off is really amazing,” Mendez said.

Other beloved San Francisco diners have not been so lucky, however. Among notable changes to the old-school food scene, according to Hoodline, are the closure of the Lucky Penny to make way for a residential complex and the planned addition of homes atop Grubstake Diner.

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An employee straightens menus at the original Mel's Drive-In Diner on Geary Boulevard in San Francisco, Calif. Monday, April 18, 2016. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

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  • No Hate

    As much as I like eating at Mel’s, a lunch there now costs a fortune! For casual diner food.

  • walt kovacs

    i grew up here and i dont remember mel’s in that location during the 60s

  • Bill Alvarado

    Sometime in the early 70’s it stopped being Mel’s and was a Pacific Stereo store. Pacific stereo went out of business and Mel’s re-opened in 1988. In the 60’s they had carhops. The cars lined up 3 deep in straight rows. When the guy in the front of the line wanted to leave, the back 2 cars had to move out. The driver usually had a steering wheel tray that he had to take off the wheel and hand it to a passenger or set on the seat next to him. Lots of Coke refills after the move.

  • Bill Alvarado

    I remember being there when a a friend came in with a brand new 1970 Chevelle SS396. So it was still there, maybe, in fall of 69? I don’t remember when it closed and became a Pacific Stereo store.

  • This is GREAT !.. The current building is an icon, a shrine to the 50s! Rock n Roll will never die, and neither will Mel’s… When do they start shooting American Grafitti III ?

  • Elizabeth Frantes

    There is no such thing as “sustainable growth” we are out of water, we can’t keep the infrastructure up to par, the ocean is rising, and our new buzzword is “resilience” Cui bono? High density housing is not green. Tearing down existing structures and importing cheap building materials is insane, wastes energy, and just plain costs too much.

  • Craig Thomas Yates

    Mel’s drive in original down off market street was best they roller skated to your car

  • Craig Thomas Yates

    You;re on target, that was good days carhops

  • Craig Thomas Yates

    Just Like good old Doggie Dinners, swimming team fly shakers pool on sloat next to Zoo, we practice then pop over to doggie dinner.