In the bright, innocent days of Gidget, when there really was a Bob at Bob’s Big Boy, cruisin’ the drive-ins was part of every West Coast baby boomer’s lifestyle. “After club meetings or Friday-night games, we’d pile into someone’s car and drive by Bob’s on Van Nuys Boulevard to see who was there,” recalls Annelle Block, 51, a San Fernando Valley native. Our uniforms were dyed-to-match angora sweater-and-socks sets, or poodle skirts. For the guys it was madras Bermudas on the jocks and surfers and black studded leather on the greasers. Almost any L.A.-raised boomer remembers when s/he thought nothing was cooler than to sit packed into a customized car with at least a half-dozen friends, listening to the Shirelles and eating from a tray hooked to the car window, served by waitresses on roller skates.
The first Bob’s, named Bob’s Pantry, a 10-stool diner on Colorado Boulevard in Glendale, was founded by Bob C. Wian, who sold his car for $350 to start the venture in 1936. He eventually turned that investment into 22 California Bob’s — most of them in suburbia — and later into a string of nationwide franchises. Wian infused Americans’ favorite foods with a larger-than-life image: double-decker burgers (made with meat ground at the restaurant), spoonably thick malts in silver-colored goblets, fat wedge-cut fries, and voluptuous breakfasts served at any hour. These over-the-top indulgences seemed irresistible after the Depression and rationing of the war years.
In the entrepreneurial spirit of the times, Wian tapped into the psyche of fad-loving Americans when he dreamed up Bob’s mascot, the chubby, freckle-faced boy in garish red-checked trousers. The life-size statue that graced every Bob’s reached pop-icon status, on a par with Howdy Doody or Barbie dolls. In 1967, Wian sold his interest to the Marriott Corp., which in turn was acquired by Elias Bros. Restaurants Inc. of Detroit in 1988. The companies eventually closed a string of long-beloved Bob’s, and the food in many remaining restaurants lost its vitality.
Many of the Bob’s open today, whether in Chicago or anywhere else, are stylized, campy reproductions of the real thing. The menus lean toward such updated items as pita-pocket sandwiches and herbal teas, along with replicas of Bob’s famous dishes. Perhaps as lucrative as the sale of food is the Bob’s memorabilia sold at each restaurant — hats, jewelry, T-shirts — emblazoned with an updated image of Bob’s celebrated mascot.
Bob’s good-old-days style is, however, still preserved in its most authentic form on Riverside Drive in Burbank. Those Naugahyde tuck-and-roll booths still recall the days of tail-finned, chopped and channeled, pearlized painted muscle cars that every car-crazy adolescent male craved and in which every girl longed to ride. This Bob’s might have vanished, too, but for a fanatical group of aficionados and architectural preservationists who, after much lobbying, got the vintage space-age building designated as a State Point of Historical Interest.
The car-hop service was reinstated, and on Saturday and Sunday nights baby boom ers flood the place, along with their kids, to share a bit of their own history. And these kids think there is nothing cooler than to sit in the SUV, listening to Ricky Martin while having waitresses serve them dinner on trays hooked to car windows. 4211 Riverside Drive, Burbank; (818) 843-9334.