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California: The Birthplace of Fast Food

California: The Birthplace of Fast Food

Discover what iconic chains got their start in the Golden State and how you can visit them all on your next trip

When you think of California cuisine, images of Happy Meals and neon-colored Baja Blasts may not be exactly what you had in mind. But the Golden State’s food scene is home to so much more than avocado toast and the juice cleanse. In fact, California has served as the birthplace for some of the world’s most iconic drive-thru restaurants, including McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and In-N-Out. Many of these chains were innovators in the restaurant game and would go on to shape America’s dining habits. Here’s a history-filled guide on how to experience them on your next road trip through the Golden State. 


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McDonald’s, Established in 1940, San Bernardino

Arguably the most famous restaurant chain in the world, McDonald’s got its start in the Inland Empire city of San Bernardino. Started in 1940 by brothers Maurice and Richard McDonald––and later owned by Ray Kroc, famously––the restaurant established the red-and-white tile burger-joint look that California popularized.

You can’t order a Big Mac at the first-ever McDonald’s on Route 66—it’s a museum now—but you can see the largest collection of pre–Ray Kroc memorabilia, including early menus, toys, photographs, and props from the 2016 film, The Founder. Sculptures of Grimace, the Hamburglar, and other familiar characters can be found outside, along with detailed murals showcasing maps of Route 66 and other California road-trip stops.

Next, drive an hour west to Downey to dine at the world’s oldest operating McDonald’s. When you arrive, you’ll spot original mascot “Speedee” and a plaque outside which reads, “When it originally opened in 1953, a hamburger cost 15 cents and an order of french fries was 12 cents.” Take a tour of the mini museum, which features original uniforms, old ads, and artifacts. Be sure to order an apple hand pie, as this location is thought to be the only Mickey Dees in the U.S. to freshly fry their pies. Ba da ba ba bah…

Original Tommy’s, Established 1946 in Los Angeles 

Back in the 1940s, the chili burger was a certified culinary revelation—the mid-century equivalent of the cronut or Impossible meat. Entrepreneur Tom Koulax decided to capitalize on this food sensation. He opened Original Tommy’s in 1946 on the corner of Beverly and Rampart Avenue in Los Angeles. Today, that same 10-by-15-foot cinderblock shack remains with the addition of a test kitchen, which turns out 180 gallons of chili daily. This location has also been featured in numerous movies, including CHIPS and Grandma’s Boy. Grab a signature chili burger at the original spot, but don’t expect any seating. Customers eat at stand-up counters just as they would in 1946. 

Fosters Freeze, Established 1946 in Inglewood

Started by George Foster, this beloved soft-serve chain almost went by an entirely different name: Dairy Queen. Foster purchased the development rights to the entire state of California from the Dairy Queen company. Little did he know that California’s dairy industry had strict laws regulating the use of the word “dairy.” The entrepreneur pivoted, calling his new endeavor Foster’s Freeze. (The apostrophe was later dropped). Eventually, the chain grew to include burgers, fries, and other fast-food staples. Today, there are 66 locations around the state. 

Foster’s original hut in Inglewood is still in business, as are a handful of some of the very first franchises. Fun fact: The now closed Hawthorne location is considered the “hamburger stand” where Brian Wilson spotted the girl in the Thunderbird he sang about in the 1964 hit "Fun, Fun, Fun." 

Hot Dog on a Stick, Established 1946 in Santa Monica 

Originally named Party Puffs, Hot Dog on a Stick was a red, barn-like stand that sold ice cream and lemonade on Santa Monica's Muscle Beach. That all changed when founder Dave Barham began coating and frying hot dogs using his mother’s cornbread recipe. The rest, as they say, is history. Back then, the uniforms were polka-dotted instead of the brand’s famous stripes, which it describes as “Red, White, and Blue with a Splash of Lemonade.” Lucy Liu and Drew Barrymore even sported the iconic outfits––hat included––in Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle.

The original shack was remodeled in 2022 and is still going strong today. Visit the bright red building for a tasty corn dog and homemade lemonade. Take your portable treat with you as you explore the Santa Monica Pier and Venice Boardwalk. The chain has also expanded to drive-thrus for diners on the go.

In-N-Out Burger, Established in 1948, Baldwin Park 

Anthony Bourdain famously touted this West Coast burger institution as his favorite restaurant in Los Angeles––and he’s not the only one. For Californians, In-N-Out is a particular point of pride. Started in 1948 by Harry Snyder, In-N-Out is credited with the invention of the two-way speaker system, enabling the very first drive-thru. For travelers coming to California, ordering a Double-Double “Animal Style” off the (not-so-secret) secret menu is a rite of passage. Visit a replica of Snyder’s original 100-square foot shack in Baldwin Park for a fun throwback. Sign the guest book, collect souvenirs, and play a build-your-own-burger game (though no burgers are sold at this location). Just spot the signature crossed palms in front and you’ll know you’ve arrived. Plus, check out these 6 Reasons Why In-N-Out Should Be on Your California Hit-List.

Jack in the Box, Established 1951 in San Diego

San Diegans who grew up going to the first Jack in the Box restaurant in suburban Rolando Village knew the chain’s mascot as a giant clown perched on the restaurant's roof. When Jack opened its doors in 1951, on-the-go diners would even order their burgers through a clown-shaped intercom, the very first drive-thru in San Diego to have a two-way speaker system. Back then, the menu only had 15 items and a burger cost 18 cents. 

Take a trip to the San Diego History Center’s Inside|OUT exhibit to see the original mascot and speaker head. Afterwards, head to a nearby location on El Cajon Boulevard, not too far from where founder Robert O. Peterson’s first Jack in the Box once stood. 


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Fatburger, Established 1952 in Jefferson Park 

Did you know that “The Last Great Hamburger Stand” was started by a Black woman? In 1947, entrepreneur Lovie Yancey launched a three-stool hamburger stand in Los Angeles and called it “Mr. Fatburger.” “I wanted to get across the idea of a big burger with everything on it,” she said, “a meal in itself.” She later dropped the “Mr.” and the stand became a hit with patrons who would custom-order their burgers.

Over the years, Fatburger has garnered much love from the rap community. The burger joint has been name-dropped by Tupac (“Late Night”), Notorious B.I.G. (“Going Back to Cali”), and perhaps most famously in Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day.” Bay Area rapper E-40 actually owns several franchises. You can still visit Fatburger’s very first location in Jefferson Park. Yancey sold the original stand under the condition that it could never be torn down. 

Carl’s Jr., Established 1956 in Anaheim

In 1941, husband-and-wife duo Carl and Margaret Karcher invested all their money into a small hot dog cart in Anaheim. That cart would expand into a barbeque stand and later, two burger restaurants named Carl’s Jr. Enthusiasts of the chain’s Famous Star or Super Star burgers can visit the flagship location at 1200 N. Harbor Blvd., mere steps from the very corner where the Karchers would have parked their hot dog cart. A plaque on the front door commemorates their story. 

Wienerschnitzel, Established 1961 in Wilmington

A protégé of Taco Bell founder Glen Bell, John Galardi was a commissary manager for his El Taco restaurants. With some encouragement from Bell, Galardi decided to venture out on his own. Martha Bell, Glen's wife, even came up with the name for the new enterprise, “Der Weinerschnitzel," and helped Galardi develop the menu. As the chain expanded, the “Der” was dropped. Today, Wienerschnitzel is the largest hot dog chain in the world. 

Cruise down Pacific Coast Highway to visit the very first Wienerschnitzel in Wilmington just west of Long Beach, which was designated a Los Angeles Historic Cultural Landmark in 2014. Order a frank or fries smothered with the chain’s signature chili, made from a secret recipe. Comedian Blake Anderson even raved about a food challenge he and his Workaholics co-stars invented at the chain during his appearance on the California Now Podcast.



Taco Bell, Established 1962 in Downey

Inspired by the tacos at Mitla Cafe, a Mexican restaurant across from his hot dog/burger stand in San Bernardino, Bell made it his mission to perfect the hard-shell taco. In 1962, he opened the first Taco Bell in Downey to instant success. By 1967, there were 100 Taco Bells in operation.

Today, there are over 7,000 Taco Bells worldwide, but California boasts what many have dubbed “The World’s Most Beautiful Taco Bell” in Pacifica. Situated on Pacifica State Beach just south of San Francisco, this restaurant is about as close to the ocean as you can get. Tailored for beachgoers, a sign outside states: “Customers with sandy feet, please place order at the window.” It features surfboard parking spaces, a fireplace, and a spacious outdoor patio.

Del Taco, Established 1964 in Yermo 

Ed Hackbarth was operating another one of Bell’s restaurants on Route 66 called Taco Tia. A decade later, Hackbarth acquired the Yermo restaurant and rebranded it as Del Taco. The building that housed that original location of the now ubiquitous chain still stands, though today it’s a Tita’s Burger Den.

In 1976, Hackbarth and his business partner sold the franchise, except for three locations in Barstow, which he still oversees today. Stop by for original menu items only found at these restaurants, including “Barstow Classics” like bun tacos and tostadas made with classic 1960s recipes. You may even get to meet Hackbarth, now in his late 80s, as he still comes in twice a week to greet customers. 

Panda Express, Established 1973 in Glendale

Before Panda Express existed, there was Panda Inn, a sit-down restaurant in Pasadena opened in 1973 by father-son duo Master Chef Ming-Tsai and Andrew Cherng. Now run by Andrew and his wife Peggy, Panda Express’ American Chinese food became a fast favorite in California and beyond. This is in no small part due to the fact that in 1987, Panda’s executive chef Andy Kao would invent one of the cuisine’s most iconic dishes: orange chicken. Taste it at the original Panda Inn, which is set to reopen later this year with an updated menu and redesigned interior. Try new and experimental menu items like the internet-famous orange chicken burrito at the Panda Express at Innovation Kitchen in Pasadena—the only one of its kind.

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