Best breakfast in San Francisco? It has to be Mel’s Drive-In

Tip2Top: Peter Murtagh continues his journey up the Americas with a stop at the famous diner. He isn’t disappointed, and meeting a rock queen is a bonus

If you’re staying on Lombard, the best place to have breakfast is Mel’s Drive-In diner at Cow Hollow. It’s at the bottom end of the street, the marina end, which itself leads on to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, about 3km away. I just know Mel’s is going to be so good that I leave it until my last morning in this impossibly beautiful city.

It does not disappoint.

I swing open the entrance door – all glass and polished chrome – and walk inside. Carlos is there, behind the till. “Hi, and welcome to Mel’s,” he says.

I am enveloped immediately in a wonderworld of Americana – stainless steel, chrome and more chrome, and, facing me, right inside the door, a Wurlitzer jukebox, all lit up and banging out period-appropriate music. In front of the bar counter, there’s a row of one-legged bar stools, with the backsides of occupants rippling over the seat edges. All along the counter are little mini-Wurlitzers where patrons can choose their favourite background sounds – Hank Williams, Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash and, of course, Elvis. (He lives nearby, I believe.)


The bar counter runs front to back down the centre of the restaurant, which faces on to Lombard. Years ago, waiting staff on roller skates used to serve patrons parked in their cars outside. Not any more, sadly. The other wall, inside the restaurant, is covered in big blow-up, black and white photos from the 1940s and 1950s. The men are all heavy overcoats and fedoras; the women have baggy long trousers and wear shades. The scenes mostly show people arriving or leaving places – nightclubs or political gatherings, maybe – or standing by a car with bulbous fenders, oozing cool.

At the back is the kitchen. The hob hood has sunburst polished steel panels. The chefs busy themselves cranking out plates of pancakes and eggs – “Over easy sir? Comin’ up!” – bacon and toast.

Carlos takes my order. “Two eggs over easy,” I say, “bacon, hash browns and coffee.”

“Toast?” he aks. “You want toast?”

“Yes, please,” I reply.

“White or brown?”

“Brown,” I say.

“You got it!

The first Mel’s opened on December 23rd, 1947, at 140 South Van Ness, Carlos tells me. The diner featured in American Graffiti, George Lucas’s 1973 film, whose Burger City was actually Mel’s Drive-In. Mel’s is even on the movie’s promotional poster. Competition in the 1970s drove Mel’s out of business, but Steven Weiss, a son of one of the founders, revived it, and there are now eight outlets, in San Francisco, Hollywood and Los Angeles.

Carlos – who is Carlos Alexander Martinez – runs my Mel’s and does a smooth job orchestrating the seating and serving. The place is buzzing with locals and tourists, but on this Wednesday at 9.15am they’re mostly locals, I think.

Just then, Jessica sits down beside me at the bar. That’s Jessica Quinlan, who is 43. “I’m from Missouri,” she says just after ordering the first of what is to become two large glasses of champagne.

“I’m out here for a bunch of concerts,” she says, and we fall – plunge might be a better description – into conversation. I’m so sucked into the riot that is Jessica’s rock’n’roll life that my over-easys and hash browns get cold and I never even get around to trying the toast.

“I’m here for a bunch of concerts,” she explains. “Last Thursday, we” – her and her boyfriend, Ben, who grows weed – “left Columbus, Missouri and went to Billy Idol in Kansas City and then went to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena for the Just Like Heaven festival. Tomorrow we’re gonna see Gary Numan. I dunno if you know him. He sang the song Cars.” I tell her I know the song. “That’s in Petaluma, California. Saturday, we’re at the Cruel World Festival,” which is back at the Rose Bowl. “Wednesday we have The Cure – I can’t wait for that!”

Jessica used to be a dental assistant and at some stage also had a restaurant and an art gallery.

“But now I’m on disability” – $1,400 a month, she says. “My ex-boyfriend tried to kill me. I had, like, kidney and liver failure and I have vocal-cord damage,” she says, explaining her husky voice.

“Are you going to have breakfast?” I ask.

“Nah, just champagne,” she answers. “I’m gonna take a shower and head to LA.”

She’s staying at the nearby Chelsea Inn, a choice on her part that was preordained by the script.

“You like champagne in the morning?” I ask.

“I do,” she says emphatically. “I like beer too.”

We then have a political conversation. Jessica loathes Trump and all that comes with him and all that he represents about the United States right now and the way he and his supporters are affecting everything.

“They want women pregnant and in the kitchen,” she says. “They don’t want gay people. I live in a country where so many people say, ‘We live in the greatest country.’ I’m sorry. You can pull a duck’s neck as long as you want, but you’re still not gonna have a swan.”

For that phrase alone I will love Jessica forever. She downs what’s left of her second glass and leave for her hotel. I leave to check out of my hostel.

Mel’s? Like I said, best breakfast in San Francisco.

Peter Murtagh is travelling by motorbike from Tierra del Fuego, at the tip of South America, to Alaska, at the top of North America, and writing here regularly. You can also read his blog and follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh is a contributor to The Irish Times