A drive-in restaurant that spawned a Santa Clara Valley legacy
After World War II, the Santa Clara Valley was changing. Once known as "the Valley of Hearts Delights", the local economy was being transformed from an agricultural base into research and development. This was mostly driven mostly by the cold war in order to keep up with Soviet space technology and the growing threat of a nuclear attack. Aerospace industries began recruiting talent from all over the United States. Orchards were slowly being engulfed by track homes and factories.
After gas rationing and other wartime restrictions were lifted, America was spending more time in their cars. Everything from drive-in movie theaters, drive-in cleaners to drive-in grocers to began popping up all over the US.
Circular styled diners introduced a new experience for the automobile enthusiasts. Patrons were now able to order meals from their cars in a new concept called: the drive-in restaurant. These highly visible nightspots, with glowing neon lights, bright interiors and shiny automobiles parked around them, were becoming an American institution.
As described from family decedents, Gerald Hopkins and Chris Clark: in 1947, Johnny McLane, Bill Clark (Johnny's brother-in-law) and Clark's best friend from World War II, Frank (Hoppie) Hopkins, opened a drive-in restaurant in Redwood City, California.
Shortly after, they opened Johnny Mac's in Mountain View. Their star meal featured the Big Mac hamburger, a two patty burger fit between a bun and cut in thirds. In those days, buns couldn't be special ordered, so the third slice of the bun was cut at the eatery.
Located on the El Camino Real, there were several booths and a small counter in the restaurant's interior. But the thrust of business catered to automobile traffic. Carhop hostesses would insert many dinner trays and deliver their Big Mac hamburgers to automobiles during busy nights.
And like any "joint" of the fifties, Johnny Mac's was not immune to some interesting episodes. Rumor has it that one night, a jealous husband ran his car into the restaurant when he discovered that his wife was dining there with another man.
During the early fifties, the partners started the Burger Bar, a chain of three restaurants in San Jose, one of which still remains. Instead of car service, however, they decided on indoor dining type restaurants with self service. Shortly after, John McLane died of a heart attack.
In the late fifties, the remaining partners started the Burger Pit Family Steakhouse. Al Burger and Chuck Pays entered into the partnership. The self service theme was similar the their Burger Barns. In fact, they decided to start The Self Serve Food Corporation, a separate entity that would support their restaurant's supplies.
One of the first Burger Pits opened in 1957 on Stevens Creek Road and Blainey in Cupertino. By the 1970s, the Burger Pit became a familiar name in the Santa Clara Valley, with locations branching from Milpitas, San Jose, Cupertino, Salinas, Santa Cruz and Sunnyvale. One location was even opened in Lake Tahoe for a short period, but was unable to stay a float.
After Johnny Mac's Drive-in was sold in the early sixties, the name was changed to the Big Mac's Drive-in. The Big Mac burger remained the same.
Gary Painter, the owner's step-son during the mid-sixties, recollected playing in the restaurant's basement. He described radio and electronic supplies that were stored on shelves by the property owner.
The structure that housed the drive-in still remains today as a cleaners, tavern and a liquor store. As you look around the Santa Clara Valley today, it's not hard to notice all the drive-through restaurants. But before McDonalds, Burger King and Starbucks, there were three friends in the Santa Clara Valley who had a dream.