Irv's Burgers

L.A. 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

WEST 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.

"To 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, Calif. (Photos Jonathan Alcorn For The Washington Post)

That 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.

The 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 hamburger stand."

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 site.

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."


IRV'S BURGERS Since 1950
7998 Santa Monica Boulevard
West Hollywood, CA 90046

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