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Burger, Fries and a Slice of History

March 19, 2003|Patricia Ward Biederman | Times Staff Writer

The Eiffel Tower, it isn't.

It isn't even the last of the Bob's Big Boys.

But on Tuesday a Chatsworth burger stand was added to the Cultural Heritage Commission's list of historic-cultural monuments.

The Munch Box, on Devonshire Street near Canoga Avenue, is a monument to the way burgers consumed in adolescence sizzle in the memory forever. Opened in 1956, it is a 300-square-foot memorial to a time when cars were big and had fins and nobody cared if they guzzled gas.

Councilman Hal Bernson, who represents the northwest San Fernando Valley, presented the motion to preserve the Munch Box. The landmark, Bernson wrote, "is an integral part of the old Chatsworth community and a direct link with its past. These types of establishments that once abounded virtually no longer exist and are only seen in old photographs or movie clips."

The Los Angeles City Council unanimously passed the motion, without discussion.

The red-and-yellow burger stand, with its distinctive jet-age overhang, once sported a hitching post where local equestrians could tie their horses while they downed chili dogs and secret-recipe root beer. Local ranchers Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were among its celebrity patrons.

More than 1,500 residents signed petitions to save the stand, some of its champions describing it as one of the West Valley's best surviving examples of so-called Googie architecture, or Coffee Shop Moderne.

But Andre van der Valk, 55, who led the monument-status campaign with his wife, Linda, points out that alumni returning to Chatsworth High School for their reunions inevitably stop at the Munch Box because its hickory burgers are rich in memories.

"It's an emotional attachment," said the co-president of the Chatsworth Historical Society. "We remember the '50s. Life was simple in the '50s."

It's still simple at the Munch Box, which has resisted the urge to modernize or diversify its menu.

"You can walk up and get a hamburger or a hot dog and a root beer, but don't try to get an iced tea or a decaf coffee," van der Valk said.

The Munch Box attracts a multiracial, multiethnic, multigenerational clientele, from octogenarians to teenagers. With its yellow picnic tables and faded red vinyl counter stools, the place isn't fancy, but it has its own standards of behavior, van der Valk said.

Whether you find yourself sitting next to a biker or a developer worth millions, you don't ask what they do or how much they make.

"You talk about what's happening with the war in the Middle East and what's happening in the community. And when you get up to leave you say, 'Nice talking to you,' " he said.

Owner Buck Barker was traveling and could not be reached for comment. But patron Tom Hanlon, 64, a retired electrician, thought the monument designation was fitting and just.

"It's been here forever," he said.

The food, the experience and the staff all are superior to the fast-food chains and other local competitors, he said.

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