Drive-ins with carhops: An order of nostalgia

June 16, 1992|By Steve Rubenstein | Steve Rubenstein,San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO -- Carhops have hippity-hopped from the '50s to the '90s, and this time their arms are laden with veggie burgers and low-fat yogurt shakes.

It's nostalgia for the cholesterol conscious, and it's happening at Mel's on Lombard Street. Every Tuesday through the summer, the restaurant is bringing back carhop service.

Flash your headlights for service, said the announcement. It has been 40 years since this sort of thing constituted big-time pop culture, so maybe they forgot that at the lunch hour the sun is shining and it's hard to see flashing headlights.

I flashed a few dozen times, in rhythm to the jukebox. Rave on, it's a crazy feeling. Wanda the carhop hopped over.

Her real name, she said, is Cathy, but not when she's carhopping. She was wearing blue sunglasses and cracking bubble gum, but she was not wearing roller skates.

"We're starting this thing slowly," she said. "We're not trying to do everything at once."

There is a difference between sitting in your car with a greasy burger at a drive-through fast food joint and sitting in your car with a greasy burger that has been brought by a carhop.

It may seem like a fine point, but it works out to 40 years.

At a drive-through joint, the car drives to the food. The driver places his order through the half-open window, to a faceless kid on a walkie-talkie. Then the car keeps driving, and the driver must eat the burger while he drives. The ketchup ends up on his pants.

At a carhop joint, the food comes to the car. The driver places his order through the half-open window, to a kid in black tights. The car stays put, and the burger hangs from the outside of the window on a tray until the driver hauls it in. The ketchup ends up on his pants.

This being the '90s, the lawyers have been brought in. Disclaimers are printed on every menu.

"Mel's cannot be held responsible for spillage or other incidents related to carhop service."

"We have to protect ourselves against lawsuits," said restaurant manager Gabriel Mendez. "It's not like the '50s. We didn't want to lose everything."

Mr. Mendez said he napped through the '50s. He was 2 when the '50s ended. He knows about carhops from "American Graffiti."

A half hour before I arrived, Mr. Mendez had ordered the first carhop lunch himself -- a veggie burger (low sodium, no cholesterol, $5.50) and a vanilla yogurt shake (low fat, $2.85). You need stuff like this on the menu, he sighed, to stay competitive.

"My cholesterol count is 212," Mr. Mendez said. "I went to the doctor yesterday, and he told me to watch it. Anyway, the veggie burgers are pretty good. They have tofu and carrots in them."

The wind was up, this being June in San Francisco, and the place mats and napkins blew off the hanging tray a couple of times and bounced around the parking lot. Everyone's napkins were blowing around.

I got out of the car and helped Wanda chase them down. It was fun, just like the '50s.

"Round, round, get around, I get around, get around, round round, I get around," sang the Beach Boys on the jukebox.

The place mat ended up beneath a nearby Chevy and the napkins were on the hood of a BMW. The Chevy's napkins were under a Ford.

"The roller skates would come in handy," said Wanda.

She gave me some water for my napkin, so I could wipe the ketchup off my pants.

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