Santa Monica’s former Penguin Coffee Shop will soon be reborn as a 24/7 Mel’s Diner

By Carl Kozlowski

Penguin Coffee Shop lights up the night in this vintage 1959 photo
Photo by Armet Davis Newlove Architects, courtesy of Santa Monica

As the endpoint of iconic Route 66, Santa Monica is an ideal place for a 1950/’60s diner. The popular Mel’s Diner chain plans to make that dream come true in May, when they re-open Penguin Coffee Shop — the Googie-style diner at Lincoln and Olympic boulevards, which had been pressed into service as a dental office for the past 25 years.

“It’s a great way to celebrate our 70th anniversary,” says Colton Weiss, an enthusiastic 26-year-old whose late grandfather Mel Weiss founded the original Mel’s in San Francisco. “We’re playing that up big time, and it’ll be 24/7 just like our Sunset [Boulevard] location. So people are already asking when we’re opening. The city and neighbors are excited.”

Weiss runs the Mel’s empire with his father, Steven, who is overseeing the day-to-day restoration and reopening effort in Santa Monica. The elder Weiss is responsible for bringing Mel’s to Los Angeles — with a little help from Hollywood, of course.

The original Mel’s on Van Ness Avenue was the only Mel’s for decades and was on the verge of closing down in the 1970s when a young filmmaker by the name of George Lucas asked if he could use the location as a focal point for a little movie based on 1960s teen culture called “American Graffiti.”

At first the film was simply an inconvenience — Lucas, cast and crew ate so much that the restaurant would run out of food during the day. Then the film became a massive hit, and so
did diners like Mel’s.

“There were a lot of TV shows based on that movie. One of them was ‘Alice,’ about a different diner called Mel’s, while ‘Happy Days’ had a different diner based on Mel’s and had ‘Graffiti’ star Ron Howard in it,” says Colton Weiss. “But my grandfather still closed it, and about a decade later my father Steven reopened with a new location on Lombard Street.”

Penguin Coffee Shop opened in 1959 and was the handiwork of Santa Monica-based architectural firm Armet & Davis, which changed the restaurant business and popular culture in Los Angeles with their Googie architecture — Space Age futurist, with upswept roofs, curvaceous geometric shapes and bold use of glass, steel and neon. It may be hard to define Googie, but you know it when you see it.

The original Penguin had stylish terrazzo floors, which Steven Weiss has made a point of unearthing and replacing since the installation of dental chairs had ruined the original flooring. He also ripped out drab beige drywall to uncover the original interior rock-lined walls and exterior rock walls. The iconic Penguin sign never went away — the city protected it with monument status.

“Throughout the years it was a Western Dental, we’d kept hoping we could take over the lease because it’s so perfect for a Mel’s,” says Steven Weiss. “My wife found out it was available and I was able to get ahold of the owner of the property. It’s unique that it has plenty of parking, because that’s so rare these days.  Thankfully the owner of Western Dental kept the exterior as it was, but we had to gut the interior and build it back into a diner. We’re going to give it a beachy feel because it’s in Santa Monica, so it’ll have a slightly different interior from a typical Mel’s.”

Work also included removing drop ceilings and installed large booths that replicated the originals. The place won’t open for at least another month, but there’s tremendous buzz online and the Route 66 Association has already called to express its excitement.

“We’re going to have a large aquarium with a diorama of Mel’s inside it, and a recreation of the Route 66 that ends in Mel’s Diner,” explains Steven Weiss. “It’s going to be in the center of the dining room so you can see through the aquarium from one side of the dining area to the other. We’ll be hanging light fixtures like what Penguin had. We’re duplicating a lot. Three historians are helping me replicate exterior and interiors.”

While staying true to retro character, the new Mel’s will also include contemporary touches such as craft beer on tap, a juice bar and phone charging stations.

“We have what people like these days — like kale, salmon, fresh juices — but also burgers and big breakfasts,” says Colton Weiss. “We keep up what have been great sellers for 70 years, but also bring in what’s happening nowadays. We’re here for everyone.”

Check in May for a grand opening announcement.