A guy wearing a black hoodie, flat-brimmed baseball hat and baggy jeans walked up to Whiz Burgers Drive-In on a warm Sunday night. His head was down as he focused on several wrinkled dollar bills he had just pulled from his pocket.
“What’s up, boss, can I get a large chocolate shake?” Jay Smith asked as he leaned into the order window covered with food stickers and menu options.
Smith has been chowing down at the Whiz since the ’90s, when his father would bring him here for a treat.
“I was raised on this food!” Smith said. “I grew up at 18th and Potrero, and this was right there, and it’s always been here.”
The tall white Whiz Burgers sign that stands on the edge of the property, right on the corner of 18th and South Van Ness, confirms the drive-in’s legit restaurant relic status. Under the fluorescent Whiz lightning-bolt lettering it says “Since 1955.”
Hungry weekend diners like Jay Smith can find junk food anywhere around the neighborhood, but Whiz Burgers is the place to go for nostalgic fryer food that falls somewhere between a high-class, overpriced cheeseburger and the dollar eats at McDonald’s. And if the burger and fries don’t interest you, owner Kim Yong Gil has added a big, seven-dollar plate of chicken teriyaki to the menu.
Whiz Burger’s setup is unique for the Mission: namely, it has a parking lot, so a family of six, like the Dzibs, can easily bring everyone for lunch.
“We were driving by after church, and we had $50 in cash, saw Whiz’s and thought, why not?” said Lorena Dzib, a mother who brought with her four well-dressed sons in pressed white shirts and ties.
Their tab rang up to exactly $50 for five orders of fries, sodas and sandwiches.
Dzib has eaten at the Whiz since the 1970s. She grew up nearby and can remember the tall swivel stools at the aluminum counter looking the same as they do now — but the skating waitresses who once served burgers and shakes are gone.
“I always liked these little places, and I wouldn’t take them to a McDonald’s,” Dzib said, pointing to her boys. “The quality is a little higher, and it tastes likes something you’d eat or make at home.”
The line for food orders has grown longer behind the Dzibs, and they’ve gathered their Philly cheese steaks and sons to go home to eat — there might not be enough room for the whole family at the few picnic tables and chairs around them.
Or they might not want to sit down. On the corner of one picnic table, a lone gray pigeon is perched near a used container of ketchup. The bench attached to one of the tables is mysteriously chopped off. Three rickety stools is the option. But maybe this is how Whiz fans like it — to sit among a museum of old drive-in furniture barely updated for decades.
Jared Stearne doesn’t seem to mind as he waits for his half-pound cheeseburger, order of chicken nuggets and a fountain root beer.
“I’m getting over a pretty nasty hangover right now,” Stearne explained. “I went out with friends to Nob Hill last night, and just got up around 2 p.m., so I’m looking for some greasy, meaty food right now.” His meal cost about $15.
Fleet Week’s Blue Angels could be heard in the distance, and Stearne talked about how annoying their noisy overflights can be when one is paying dues for a fun night of partying. He just found Whiz Burgers a year ago, he said, even though he has lived in the Mission area for several years. Now he comes about twice a month.
“It’s good to be outside, and this place has pretty good meat quality — it’s close to homemade,” he said. “It seems like restaurants close within 10 to 15 years in the city, so it’s nice to see this place around.”
Whiz Burgers stands the test of time, perhaps, by not fighting against it while also not trying too hard. They still call their single hot dogs “hot links,” but they give a shout-out to vegetarians with a simple veggie burger, garlic-seasoned fries and delicious hand-dipped chocolate, vanilla, strawberry and banana milkshakes — the kind you can just barely drink through a white-and-red plastic straw, because they’re prepared with real scoops of ice cream, thick chocolate syrup and actual dairy milk, then blended with a stand-up mixer. Just the way they did it in 1955.
Whiz Burgers Drive-In, 700 South Van Ness Ave. between 18th and 19th streets. Open 10 a.m.-9:45 p.m. daily.