Retro Living: Blasts from the Past

15 retrolicious ways to break through the time warp and relive the mid-century today

Has anyone delved into the secrets of the mid-century with more fervor than Charles Phoenix? Not likely.

Consider the subject of the Jell-O mold—a category of food that starts weird and only gets weirder. Phoenix went out of his way to discover possibly the weirdest Jell-O mold recipe ever. "Lime Jell-O with Fruit Loops and bologna," he reveals.

couple at drive in

Do not try this at home!

When it comes to the mid-century, no one can compete with Phoenix, who has become a one-man traveling nostalgia show.

If something was big in the '50s and '60s, Phoenix is onto it—whether it's 3-D visuals, which he's recreated in his 'Big Retro 3-D Slide Show,' or Googie signage from Pomona Valley, where he grew up.

So, Charles, can you tell your fans how we can return to the mid-century—today?

 Phoenix laughs, then he sighs. "In my advice," he warns, "don't even start trying. It's impossible, number one—and if you do try, you might go insane."

"A '50s-esque experience is fine and dandy," he continues. "But you can't go back. No matter how hard you study the period. I still don't feel like I really know what it was really like to be there."

charles phoenixThat is a shocking statement. But, Charles, what if we really, really want to go back in time. You must have some suggestions?

"There are places that are leftovers from that period," Phoenix concedes. "If you want to blur your eyes a little, you can imagine this is what it was kind of like."

So we blur our eyes. We look around our world and edit out all that is new and focus on what is old. We ask Phoenix and other avatars of the 'fabulous fifties' to do the same.

And what do we discover? That the 1950s and '60s are all around us here in California—if we only look! Yes, we can go back in time—but we'd better do it fast.

"Time warps are my favorite things in the world, no matter what period they are," Phoenix says. "They're rare, and they're getting rarer."

So enjoy the mid-century now—while you still have a chance! Here are 15 retrolicious ways to do it.

1. Dine on Drive-Thru Donuts

drive in donuts

Our voyage back in time may take a while. Better fuel up—but not on lime Jell-O. Where would Charles Phoenix suggest we dine?

"There's Randy's near LAX, an incredible drive-through donut stand, with a giant donut that's bigger than the stand. It's the most famous donut stand on earth. It's astounding to see."

For more substantial fare, Phoenix says, "There are lots of great coffee shops, but none is greater than Pann's. As far as coffee shops go, it is the palace."

With its Googie-style roadside sign, aerodynamic roof, and lipstick red booths, Pann's has what it takes to win over '50s fans, including Los Angeles preservationist Adriene Biondo, who calls it "a masterpiece with authentic architecture and style."

Both Biondo and Phoenix also rave about Bob's Big Boy Broiler in Downey, which was reconstructed after a prior owner illegally demolished most of it. "If you go there at night with the neon, when all the lights are on, they did such a great job," Phoenix says. "You can pretend for one split second you are going back in time."

In Sacramento, Pancake Circus remains a popular breakfast and lunch spot beneath its glass-walled, sloping roof. Gretchen Steinberg, who blogs about Sacramento mid-century design, praises its architecture by Sacramento Googie master Sooky Lee, and the "friendly waitresses' iconic, '50s-style service."

In the Bay Area, Heather David, whose recent book 'Mid-Century by the Bay' takes aim at 1950s' life and lore, urges time-travelers to enjoy "a night on the town. Dress up in your finest for dinner, a show, and after-dinner cocktails." She suggests Tadich Grill, known for classic seafood and starched waiters.

Nostalgic San Franciscans also enjoy another downtown spot, Sam's Grill, whose roots go back a bit before the 1950s—try 1867—but whose booths evoke the casual elegance of mid-century. In fact, it was Joe Eichler's favorite lunch spot.

Nor does Northern California lack for car-culture dining. "You can still get car service at Mark's Hot Dogs in San Jose," David says. The stand is shaped, not like a hot dog, but like an orange!

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