Burger Stand Fights for Its Life
Thousands Petition to Save Irv's In
Troubled Time for Local Joints
By Kimberly Edds
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 23, 2004; Page A03
HOLLYWOOD, Calif. It's not much more than a few
stools and a counter plunked near the end of fabled
Route 66. But like the highway whose time has come and
gone, Irv's Burgers may soon be razed to make room for
a coffee bar.
rich people it's not a lot, but we make a
living out of this place," said Sonia
Hong, owner of Irv's Burgers in West Hollywood,
Jonathan Alcorn For The Washington Post)
may not seem like big news all by itself, but fans of
the little 54-year-old hamburger stand are rallying
to save it. It's not just the smell of frying onions
and the juicy burgers they say they will miss. It's
not just the end of a joint that once attracted the
likes of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison,
and that Linda Ronstadt once used as a backdrop for
an album cover.
end of Irv's, they say, means that the chains have won
and that Los Angeles will be forgetting its past.
"If you walk into one McDonald's or one Starbucks,
you walk into them all," said Jim Conkle, executive
director of the California Route 66 Preservation Foundation.
"These stands are usually not the most attractive
place, nothing of world-shattering news ever happened
there, but it's still a piece of America and our culture."
When they heard of plans to replace the hamburger stand
with a Peet's Coffee & Tea outlet, Irv's devotees
formed a "Burger Brigade." Hundreds of letters
have flooded City Hall, with Irv's fans describing their
favorite dishes in juicy detail, from the hand-cut fries
to the crispy BLTs and fluffy Denver omelets. Thousands
of people have signed a petition to save the shop.
"To rich people it's not a lot, but we make a living
out of this place," said Sonia Hong, whose family
bought Irv's five years ago. "I want to save my
Irv's is named for Irv Gendis, who owned the burger
stand in the 1970s; it was originally known as Queenie's
and later Joe's. More recently Gendis, who still owns
the land the burger shack sits on, leased the lot to
an investor, Gregg Seltzer. In an interview, Seltzer
said that he used to eat at Irv's and liked the burgers
but that economics are forcing redevelopment of the
Although Southern California may now be known more for
trendy food and Mexican fast-food joints, Los Angeles
was once a burger town.
Ramshackle hot dog and hamburger stands that popped
up in the years after World War II evolved into the
fast-food industry. A couple of sheets of plywood, a
stove and a natural affinity for people were all someone
needed to get started. Year-round warm weather and a
demand for cheap food fast did the rest. Business boomed.
Hundreds of walk-up shacks fed the needs of factory
and construction workers round the clock.
But the hamburgers of Los Angeles -- the chili-dripping
burgers that require paper towels not mere napkins --
are quickly disappearing. Rising property values, hefty
rent increases and changing building codes are forcing
neighborhood joints off their slices of real estate
just as easily as they were squeezed in. They are being
replaced by fast-food and coffee-shop chains or small
restaurants -- serving up tacos or Asian food -- that
reflect the region's changing demographics.
Gerald Panter has been photographing nearly 200 free-standing
street-food joints around Los Angeles over the past
six years and watched a third of them go out of business.
"It's not like the old days, when land was cheap,"
said Panter, a lawyer who lives in Hollywood and wants
to turn his photos into a book. "You've got to
sell a lot of hamburgers to make these kinds of rents."
And the stands, he said, are "dropping like flies."
Preservationists say that within five to 10 years the
last remaining outdoor burger joints in Los Angeles
will be gone.
Mo' Better Meatty Meat Burgers already is. Angelinos
used to cram the corner of Pico and Fairfax clamoring
for a monstrous King burger, fries as thick as a thumb
and shakes so thick they required a spoon. Now the order
window is boarded up and the neon hamburger sign on
top of the rickety hut is dark. Frank's on Beverly Boulevard
near La Brea Avenue gave way to a Coffee Bean &
Tea Leaf. The Kosher Burrito downtown was demolished
for an office building.
Some stands have survived the wrecking ball but have
had close calls. The Munch Box in Chatsworth -- where
Roy Rogers and Dale Evans used to tie up their horses
to the hitching post while they downed chili dogs and
secret-recipe root beer -- was saved last year when
it was deemed a historic cultural monument. Jay's Jayburgers
had the rent on its patch of asphalt on the corner of
Virgil Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard more than double
overnight, but a loyal customer stepped in at the last
minute and covered the increase.
Irv's is in a neighborhood crammed with actors, waiters
and those who work two jobs and put in long hours.
"A lot of people live alone in this neighborhood.
For those customers when they come here they're coming
home. I want to treat them like family," said Hong,
who writes notes to all her customers on their paper
plates or foam cups.
"You're treated like a person, not like cattle,"
said Lisa Marie Belsanti, who works at West Hollywood
City Hall across the street from Irv's.
Perched on a rickety stool, Vickie Burns-Sikora takes
a long drag on her cigarette as she pores over her book
at the counter. The 58-year-old writer has been making
her way to Irv's since 1972, and for the past year and
a half she has eaten there every day. Cheeseburger,
dry. They never get old, she says.
"In Los Angeles we have a tendency to destroy our
past," Burns-Sikora said. "I think it's important
to keep little bits around. I know we don't need to
save all of them, but this one is mine."