Burger Relic Stays True to Old-School Roots

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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.

6 Comments

  1. tony

    look up robert hillsborough and whiz burger.

    It is a location sorta important to the cities gay rights movement.

    • Avatar of Jessica Naudziunas Jessica Naudziunas Post author

      Hey Tony, thanks for the reminder. It would be great to cover this event in a different story. Thanks for the tip. -Jessica

      • tony

        The story was pretty big at the time, I read about it as a kid in the paper and saw it on the news at the time in Portland.

        It’s amazing that the main killer only got ten years.

        There may have been one, but I don’t think there has ever been any sort of update on the story since then.

        It’s been 35 years, what are the killers and the S.O. up to? How is the killer living with himself at this late date? How does the deceased friends remember the event. etc…

  2. mark

    Actually, the food at the Whiz has changed quite a bit over the years, experimenting with different offerings until only lately, in the last 10 years or so, settling back into retro. Quite tenacious to hold on to the location given the changes in the neighborhood. Surprised no interviews with the owners. I would have also been interested to hear from neighbors.

  3. I painted the Whiz Burger sign a few years back. The place is fun and very Mission.

  4. Rob

    I haven’t had a chance to try this place… but it looks like it should be celebrated like a Mission landmark… Unfortunately, I can only assume it’s slowly falling apart.

    Pull up the pavement, turn the parking lot into space for food carts/events and more appropriate outdoor eating space and we’ve got a winner.

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