Photo by Anne Fishbein
ACROSS THE STREET FROM Hamburger Mary’s and cater-cornered from the ultramodern City Hall, Irv’s Burgers is a patch of unreconstructed California in the epicenter of sleek West Hollywood — a bright Coca-Cola sign, faded groovadelic lettering dating back to the Bicentennial, and locals lining up for shots of purest cholesterol on a block dominated by organics-conscious emporia and vegan health-food joints. Seared ahi may have its place on a menu and decaf chai may too, but since 1950 Irv’s has been a redoubt of hand-cut French fries and double cheeseburgers, pastrami sandwiches and Denver omelets, onion rings and tuna melts, root beer and egg salad, and its fans seem almost to live at the place, reading the trades, meeting with groups of friends, stapling up posters advertising readings at A Different Light and Fatboy Slim CDs.
Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin ate at Irv’s. Linda Ronstadt shot an album cover there. The dancers playing Jets and Sharks in West Side Story reputedly hung out there during crew breaks in the ’60s.
Irv’s current proprietor, Sonia Hong, is nice — just totally, manically nice — greeting two-thirds of her customers by name, asking after absent boyfriends, seemingly aware of just who in her clientele has been away on vacation or traveling with a road-show production of The Producers. (Her brother and her mother work behind the counter too.) She personalizes almost every paper plate and to-go bag with a scrawled “Just for Larry” or “For You Guys!,” usually adding a happy face or a drawing of a baby sticking out its tongue. The hamburgers are totally, infinitely customizable, and if you’ve been going there a while, you probably have a variation or a private sandwich configuration named after you, a sandwich that is irrevocably yours.
I’m just a newbie to Hong (I was a semi-regular at Irv’s years ago), but I’m fond of something called a Simon: a pastrami-topped cheeseburger on a French roll, and I have no doubt that after a half-dozen or so more visits, my particular take on that sandwich, with extra-crisp fried pastrami, a shot of Sriracha hot sauce and double pickles, would have my name on it too. But I might not get the chance.
There used to be hundreds of places like Irv’s in every part of Los Angeles, tiny walkup hamburger stands: six stools and a rack of chips, coffee by the barrel, brightly lit urban refuges perfuming entire blocks with cigarette smoke, grilled onions and the funk of frying meat. You went to a stand for a burger and a Coke, maybe a pickled egg, but mostly because you could bolt down a meal in the 30 minutes you had for lunch and get change back from a five-dollar bill. You could get a Danish and coffee in the morning, a hot dog for a midafternoon snack, probably a pack of Luckys. Some of the stands may have been better than others, and some of them actually became famous, but you went to one stand or another because it was close to the place you worked or lived. Nobody sane would have driven across town just for a shot at a hot dog at the original Eddie Blake’s or the chili size at Pete’s Grandburger when they could just walk to the stand on their block.
Over the years most of the stands disappeared, their customers lured away by the big hamburger chains, their street corners developed into mini-malls or leveled for office complexes. To the utter horror of local West Hollywood residents, Irv’s Burgers is set to be bulldozed out of existence too — Irv Gendis, the owner of the property (and the original Irv) is set to develop the site into a branch of Peet’s Coffee & Tea. The Hong family, who have been running Irv’s for the last five-odd years, would be put out of business. More than 1,400 neighbors signed a petition of protest (1 in 40 citizens of West Hollywood, as one petitioner puts it) and a group calling itself the Burger Brigade has been holding rallies in front of the restaurant — rallies, it goes without saying, fueled by some pretty good hamburgers. I haven’t seen this level of community support for a doomed restaurant since developers threatened to raze the Formosa a decade or so back — and the Formosa still stands today.
To be fair, it is easy to see both sides of this issue. Gendis spent his time behind the counter of the hamburger stand, and if he wants to develop his land, he is well within his rights, karmically as well as legally, to do so. Peet’s makes decent coffee and is generally a good neighbor — it’s not like the place is being bulldozed for a Republican Party headquarters or a Domino’s. And it would be unfair to penalize Gendis for being practically the last person in the neighborhood to redevelop, the last hamburger stand of worth left standing. But Irv’s is an awfully nice place, and it would be a shame to see it go.
Irv’s Burgers, 8289 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 650-2456. Open Monday–Saturday, 7:30 a.m.–8 p.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Difficult street parking only. Lunch for two, $8–$12.