Longtime West Hollywood burger joint is in a pickle and must close
For years Sonia Hong has dished out hamburgers and fries on paper plates decorated with customers’ smiling portraits and the inscription “just for you.”
But fans of Irv’s Burgers in West Hollywood will understand Thursday if there are frowning faces sketched on their plates as the 63-year-old walk-up eatery closes for the last time.
The burger stand, once a haunt for musicians such as Jim Morrison and Janice Joplin and featured as album artwork for a Linda Ronstadt recording, is being squeezed out by rising rents and the property owner’s demand that the owners replace its leaky corrugated tin roof — something Hong says she cannot afford.
Customers lined up Tuesday for one last combo plate and to thank Hong, her brother, Sean, and mother, “Mamma-Soon,” for the food and their friendly service.
“Sonia knows everybody’s name. She’s the nicest person,” said Anny Semonco, a radio network employee who has dined at Irv’s Burgers two or three times a week for the last 25 years. “I’ve kept a couple of her personalized plates.”
West Hollywood actor Sean Martini said he patronizes Irv’s “almost every other day.” He stood in line with his girlfriend, model Bria Myles.
“Sonia is the quintessential businessperson who knows how to support the community,” Martini said.
Myles said she loves Irv’s burgers — and the personalized smiley faces on the plates they’re served on.
The burger stand, across Santa Monica Boulevard from West Hollywood City Hall, is a throwback to the 1940s, when GIs returning from World War II used surplus aluminum from local aircraft plants to open short-order shacks along busy Los Angeles-area streets.
With the area’s mild winters, the open-air stands could operate year-round.
“You throw it together, hook up the gas and water, and you’re in business,” said Hollywood attorney and photographer Gerald Panter, who has chronicled more than 200 L.A.-area food stands for a project he calls “Eating on the Run.”
“These days,” he said, “the future of these places is shaky at best.”
Irv’s Burgers had a scare in 2004 when the then-owner of the property announced plans to raze it and replace it with a Peet’s Coffee & Tea outlet.
But West Hollywood residents formed what they called the “Burger Brigade” and managed to save the stand.
The Hongs, who live in Northridge, purchased the business in 2000 from Irv Gendis, who renamed it after himself when he acquired it in 1970. Before that, the stand had been known as Queenies’ Burgers and Joe’s Burgers.
These days, the site at 8289 Santa Monica Blvd. is owned by Standard Oil Investment Group. Company representatives declined to comment, although they have started construction of a business to be called Beach Nation next door to the stand.
Hong, her brother and her mother were harried by Tuesday’s lunchtime crowd. She handed a customer a to-go order in a paper bag marked “just for Sam,” patted him on the back and told him that she hopes to reopen at another West Hollywood location. “We have to sign the papers. I’ll still be in West Hollywood,” she said.
Customers have responded by contributing to an Indiegogo crowd-funding drive to defray the cost of relocation. Donors to saveirvsburgers.com qualify for gifts of food, T-shirts or a table named in their honor at the new place.
News that Irv’s intends to reopen in town was welcomed by Matt Miller and his girlfriend, Cheyenne Quinn, both of West Hollywood. Miller, an actor, has dined regularly at Irv’s for six years.
“Sonia will ask me, ‘Where’s your honey?’ when I come in without him,” said Quinn, a writer.
At the back of the order line, TV producer Craig Browner recalled how his wife craved Irv’s Burgers when she was pregnant. “Now I bring our 11-month-old daughter here, and Sonia plays with her,” said Browner, who lives in Beverly Hills.
West Hollywood City Councilman Jeffrey Prang described the burger stand as at the “intersection between being a truly cherished institution in the community and making money.” He said the investment group is aware that the food stand has been designated an official city cultural resource.
City officials have said that because of the burger stand’s cultural resource designation it would be extremely difficult to get permission to demolish the structure.
“If it was possible for the city to designate people as a historic resource, we certainly would designate the Hongs,” Prang said. “They treat all of their customers as if they are the first and only customers they will ever have.”
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