This is the first of my Mad Men geography articles to go outside of New York City! Although the show takes place mostly in New York, there’s a strong Southern California connection to the series as well (in fact it’s filmed there). It has featured a number of iconic West Coast locations as well as those in NYC. This, Bob’s Big Boy Broiler, is one of them. It’s located at 7447 Firestone Boulevard in Downey, one of the hundreds of neighborhoods in the Los Angeles area. In Mad Men, part of the season 4 finale, “Tomorrowland,” takes place in this restaurant; an incident here is one of the key factors that causes Don Draper to envision Megan as his potential wife.
Bob’s Big Boy is a SoCal institution and has quite an interesting history on its own. It started as Bob’s Pantry, a tiny hamburger shack in Glendale, California in 1936. A year later the owner, Bob Wian, invented a double-decked hamburger and eventually named it for a boy in overalls that used to hang around the stand. Soon people were coming from all over the area to try “Bob’s Big Boy,” and the place was a hit.
But it was not until after World War II that Bob’s Big Boy really hit its stride. Los Angeles boomed during the war, and after it the city became the first U.S. metro area designed almost entirely around the automobile, which was cheap and ubiquitous for middle-class families after 1945. This combined with a baby boom meant lots of young kids in the 1940s and 1950s, and the ease of serving them quickly and cheaply in their parents’ cars made burgers the quintessential kids’ food of the late 20th century. New Big Boy restaurants were designed in this era as drive-ins, and their iconic architecture remains today the exemplar of this type of restaurant and lifestyle.
I can’t be sure exactly when the Broiler in Downey was built, but from the architecture I’d guess it dates from no later than the mid-1950s. Certainly it would have been there in 1965 when “Tomorrowland” takes place. The oldest Big Boy in the United States is in Riverside, built in 1949. Both that one, and this one, are designated historical landmarks.