Don's Place was just an ordinary burgers-and-beer joint, a friendly Burbank spot where regulars gathered after a softball game or the local parade--a local hangout that seemed would always be there.
But on Friday, the only residents who stopped by were those who wanted a last glimpse of the charred remains of the 40-year-old restaurant at 1400 W. Olive Ave. Don's had exploded and gone up in flames early that morning.
"It's like a funeral wake," said Burbank Fire Capt. Bob Reinhardt, probing the rubble with a crew of arson investigators Friday afternoon. "People have been coming by all day, commiserating about old times and taking pictures. It's a real loss to the community."
Fire officials said a loud boom was heard by dozens of residents within three blocks of the restaurant about 3:15 a.m. Minutes later, several residents were banging on the door of the nearest fire station at Victory Boulevard and Verdugo Avenue, less than a block away.
Howard Towner, who rents a bungalow next door to Don's Place, said he was knocked out of bed by the thundering explosion. He crawled out the rear window of his apartment to avoid the flames lapping at his front door.
"I thought it was an earthquake at first," said Towner. "Then I looked out and saw the flames coming up from the roof, maybe 15 or 20 feet high."
Reinhardt said that firefighters responded with three engines and a ladder truck and put the fire out in about an hour and 15 minutes, but that it could take several days for fire officials to determine the cause of the explosion.
Once the wreckage is cleared, trained dogs will be brought in to help determine whether the fire was due to natural gas, flammable liquids, a bomb or some other cause.
The rustic restaurant once had a small beer bar with about six stools, a few indoor dining tables and a large outdoor dining area popular with the weekend crowd. All that remained of the 600-square-foot structure were three blackened concrete walls and the smoke-damaged remnants of a cigarette machine, kitchen equipment and a restroom sink.
The restaurant had been closed for the holiday season and its longtime proprietor, Joseph Palumbo, was out of town and could not be reached for comment.
Don Warner, who has owned the restaurant property for the past six years, was vacationing in Utah when the fire struck.
"I'm just happy nobody was hurt," he said in a telephone interview.
Warner added that he had recently retired from a longtime job with the city of Burbank and had planned to take over the operation of Don's Place once Palumbo's lease expired. He said it was too early to say whether the restaurant would be rebuilt.
Longtime Burbank residents Robert and Billie Spencer said they hope it will rise from the ashes.
"It was the greatest place. We've been going there since the '60s," said Robert Spencer.
"On a hot summer day you could go on the patio and have a great hamburger. They just don't make places like it anymore."