Book Review: California-born restaurants that changed America

History of eateries includes locals like Ruby’s & Red Onion

Book Cover of “Made In California” Courtesy of George Geary.

By Craig MacDonald

Seal Beach has many popular businesses like McDonald’s, Carl’s Jr., In-N-Out, Del Taco, Taco Bell, Denny’s & Peet’s Coffee. This new book explains how they all started in California & some went on to bring joy to people all over the United States & World.

These are just a few of the fascinating “Golden State-Grown” places explained in this deliciously-described treasure book, chock-full of delightful, seldom seen photographs, documenting part of the trend-setting phenoms, created here between 1915-1966.

For many readers, it will be a fun, refreshing trip down memory lane, especially since some of these, like the wonderful Hamburger Hamlet, have bit the dust. Others, like the Red Onion & Sambo’s (who recently changed their name to Chad’s) have only one establishment left.

It’s tough to figure out where to begin reviewing this full-color treasure, since just about everything in it is awesome. There are tremendous tidbits, which reveal facts that most of us never knew, such as: A&W Root Beer’s initials came from owners Ray Allen & Frank Wright (Lodi, 1919); Charles See created See’s Candies (Los Angeles, 1921); both Robert Peterson, who started Jack in the Box, and Ray Kroc, who purchased McDonald’s & expanded it worldwide, used to sell milkshake machines and Carl’s Jr. began as a hot dog cart in South Los Angeles and later was the first to offer Salad Bars, Grilled Chicken Sandwiches, Natural Turkey Burgers & Self-Service Sodas.

Who knew that Irving Robbins and Burton Baskins (Irv’s brother-in-law) are the B&R behind yummy Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream, which has over 8,000 locations in 52 countries? Most of their many flavors are kosher & made of gelatin. In the 1970s, they were the first to offer Ice Cream Cakes. One franchise owner set a World Record by scooping 19 cones in 1 minute! Many of their ice creams have funny names but their name rejects are even more laughable: Can’t Elope Tonight, Grape Britain, Berry Goldwater & Nudie Frutti.

Those lucky enough to eat at Marie Callender’s probably don’t know that when the restaurant first opened in Orange (1952), Marie’s son, Don, used to offer a free slice of pie and cup of coffee to first time visitors.

In 1950, Hamburger Hamlet was opened in West Hollywood by Actor Harry Lewis & his future wife, Marilyn. He named it “Hamlet,” after the role every actor wants to play. Movie & TV stars loved eating there, including Bette Davis (who favored the Chocolate Cheesecake), Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Ronald Reagan. Sammy Davis Jr., Tony Curtis and Jeff Chandler actually ran the popular restaurant for a weekend, just so that Harry & Marilyn could go to Las Vegas and get hitched.

Robert Peterson, Jack in the Box founder in 1951, figured out how to get guests through the restaurant more quickly by creating a Drive-Thru with intercom. It not only sped up service but allowed multiple orders to be prepared in the time it used to take for one.

Sam Battistone & Newhell Bohnett combined their names to come up with Sambo’s Restaurant in Santa Barbara. Externally, they were known for 40-cent pancakes. Internally, they offered “Fraction of the Action,” allowing managers to invest and become partners in their eateries. In the mid-1970s, there were more than 1,400 locations in the United States & 200 in Canada. Later, Sam’s son did so well, he ended up co-founding the Utah Jazz.

These are just a few of the places covered in this wonderful publication, which also lists valuable websites, slogans, original locations (and what’s there today) as well as how many remain.

Plaudits to the author of more than a dozen hit books, George Geary (—a cooking teacher, pastry chef, culinary travel guide, and in-demand public speaker—for all the endless love he did in his exhaustive research. The California native provides thorough histories (including explaining controversies & name changes), fascinating rare photos, fun layouts and colorful, captivating writing.

This monumental history guide is difficult to put down. I hope the talented author comes up with a companion volume on California-born restaurants from 1967 to the present, places like Ruby’s, which used to be on many of Southern California’s Piers & elsewhere. It was named after founder Doug Cavanaugh’s mother, Ruby.

(The reviewer used to work as a bus boy in California coffee shops & fine dining establishments. He ate in the original Marie Callender’s on North Tustin in Orange and is still friends with Shirley Dasso, who managed several Hamburger Hamlet’s.)