Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Mel's Penguin

The New Mel's Diner, Santa Monica

Today was the grand opening of Mel's Diner in the former Penguin Coffee Shop in Santa Monica. Since I work in SM, I decided to bop over for lunch. I knew it would be busy on opening day, but I wanted to re-live my Santa Monica College days when we used to go to The Penguin for burgers after class.
1959. Photo by Jack Laxer, courtesy of original architects, Armet, Davis and Newlove archives

The owners have done a great job of re-imagining the space, keeping that mid-century vibe. Some of their design choices are a bit kitschy, but overall, the restaurant is spacious and welcoming, just like the old days. 
It was busy on this first day and all of the booths were filled. Since I was alone, I found a space quickly at the counter. Mel's has added beer and wine to the casual menu. I sat right in front of the beer taps. The staff was friendly even though they were looking around frantically to make sure that everyone was served. I know it will take the staff awhile before they're comfortable. 
1959 Interior of The Penguin. Photo by Jack Laxer, archives, Armet, Davis & Newlove

My viewpoint from the counter looked right into the kitchen. The cooks were jamming. My patty melt and fries did take a bit longer than expected, but it was delicious, just like the food at all of the Mel's Diners around town (if you like $14 burgers). Really, I didn't expect perfect service on this first day. I did not complain.  After eating, the waitress took back the first bill I received. I was puzzled. Then, she handed me a new bill with only my drink ordered listed. What? She explained that she was sorry my burger took such a long time to be served and that they were only charging me for my beverage. Whoa! Excellent customer service!
The counter is spacious with those 80's juke boxes. Purse hangers under the counter would be a nice addition!

The parking lot is big, but it is valet only. For now, the valet is complimentary. You can enter from Lincoln Blvd., traveling south or from Olympic Blvd., west of Lincoln, traveling west.  After The Penguin closed in 1988, Western Dental took over the building. Luckily, they didn't change the exterior of the building at all. The big penguin sign was saved too. The rock walls inside were dry-walled and therefore preserved. The owners at Mel's really did an excavation job on the place to bring it back the best they could to it's "Googie-ness."
Western Dental, 2009

I must say, I do miss the penguin chef illustrations over the counter area. Also, the marching penguins on the lucite booth dividers. Come on! The name of the place is THE PENGUIN. There should be some penguin references INSIDE the restaurant too. Sigh.
The Penguin Interior, 1959. Penguin Chefs over the counter! Photo by Jack Laxer, from the Armet, Davis, Newlove Archives
Marching Penguins on Lucite Panel. Photo by John Eng, 1988
I will give the new Mel's a month or two to settle in before I go back. I will return. We need more coffee shops in this town!

Terrazzo walkway in front of Mel's

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