Thursday, July 18, 2024

An ode to Golden Burgers—and the immigrant-led diners that have long defined Long Beach and L.A.

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Golden Burgers was a staple at the northeast corner of 4th Street and Junipero Avenue for over four decades. Part of the definitive SoCal diner scene, it will formally turn over to its new owners, Eat Fantastic, as they rebrand the space entirely.

Hold up—Golden Burgers is no more? Why?

Golden Burgers served up its last day of its menu on July 7, marking a nearly ten-month switchover to diner chain Eat Fantastic. The mini chain currently has seven locations across Arcadia, El Segundo, Lomita, Tustin, North Torrance, Norco, and yes, Long Beach already—making this its second one locally. It follows closures like Long Beach Cafe’s shuttering back in 2020 and the Atlantic Avenue location of Tam’s, and rebrandings of spaces by more corporatized companies like Eat Fantastic. (Eat Fantastic’s northern Torrance location took over the former Burger City Grill, for example.)

The vibe of Eat Fantastic? Distinctly different: Heavily branded in its aesthetic with corporatized marketing for menus, Eat Fantastic feels like, well, very much a chain. It won’t have the Greek-ish part of the menu. It won’t have the any of the Mexican part (minus the SoCal requirement of having a breakfast burrito), let alone menudo and pozole on weekends. And it certainly won’t have DUI fries.

Of courser, this can lead one to rightfully say that the greasy spoon that was Golden Burgers could be argued as a place that felt eerily similar to, well, many other places.

And there’s a reason for that.

Golden Burgers is part of a larger connection of immigrant-led SoCal diners that defined local neighborhoods

You know the diner. A yellow-and-red sign of some sort—or something along those lines. Likely advertising burgers. Tam’s. Douglas Burgers. Louis Burgers. John’s. Jim’s. Golden Burgers.

And if they did happen to have multiple locations (which most did), a specific location represented each neighborhood distinctly. Tam’s 21 (not 23)? Kendrick approved—in more ways than one. Douglas Burgers on Cherry (not the one on Long Beach Blvd.)? The one Vince Staple has referenced in his songs.

Of course, while emotions, nostalgia, and growing-up antics often determined where your diner of choice differed from another friend, one thing remained a constant: The oddly similar menus. A gyro wrap here. A carne asada burrito there. Plenty of burgers. And just as many fries: Plain, slathered in chili and cheese, or becoming an American-meets-Greek-meets-Mexican concoction of chili, cheese, pastrami, carne asada, hot peppers, and a potential need for resuscitation after consumption.

It is these melding of cultures—American, Greek, and Mexican—that currently define these diners as much as they defined Golden Burgers specifically.

White Americans sold their diners to pursue more elevated restaurant ownership—leaving Greeks and Mexicans to define these spaces

When it comes to the American diner, the shift from them being largely Whites Only spaces before the Civil Rights Movements and toward immigrant-led spaces is two-fold: The diner sit-ins that Black Americans took part in as they decided to rightfully own their rights, like the one that took place at the White Castle diner in the Bronx in 1963. And then, post-segregation, a desire of white restaurateurs giving up on “pedestrian” foods amid the rise of fast food, opting for more elevated spaces than diners, and selling their diners as turnkey potential.

The influx of Greek immigrants that flooded New York with gyro and pita soon found its way to California: The Tam’s I mentioned? Birthed in California thanks to Greek-American Kostas Vovos over 50 years ago, his grandson Spiro still operates the location so dear to Kung Fu Kenny and the city of Compton.

And while the Vovos never gave up on Tam’s, many other Greek American owners of diners had accrued massive capital. And therefore did what the owners before them did: Move on up, opening more sophisticated Greek joints, and selling their turnkey diners to an influx of business-hungry Mexican immigrants.

These crews of hard-working, humble Mexican immigrants took the diner into the Angeleno Approved stratosphere: Carne asada, menudo, huevos rancheros… These Mexican delights sat side-by-side with the gyro and burgers that came before. And in a quite beautiful full circle moment, a space that was once legally separated from their access, had come to define diners throughout SoCal.

Like Golden Burger.

What other diners like Golden Burgers should Long Beach enjoy?

While some have disappeared, there are still plenty of diners that keep it old school. And though this is by no means a complete list of the diners available, here are some particular highlights:

  • Louis Burger III at 555 Atlantic Ave.
  • Louis Place Burger at 5990 Atlantic Ave.
  • Douglas Burgers at 6150 Cherry Ave. and 5181 Long Beach Blvd.
  • Jim’s Burgers at 3639 E 7th St.
  • John’s Hamburgers at 6223 E Spring St.
  • Tam’s at 1158 E Anaheim St.
Brian Addison
Brian Addison
Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 25 nominations and three additional wins. In 2019, he was awarded the Food/Culture Critic of the Year across any platform at the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Greeks have always have diners in so Cal. John Stamos family owned Yellow Basket and there was a chain of them. I went to the one in Lakewood back in the mid to late 1960.

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