Burger devotees recall a Hollywood classic
Yaw's Restaurant is no more, but fans can retaste the past this weekend
It was their Mel's Drive-In, their own Pacific Northwest version of 'American Graffiti.'
This weekend, Portlanders will gather and remember Yaw's Top Notch Restaurant as the brightly lit core of a simpler teenage world in which they met friends, spun their wheels and came of age with or without the fries and gravy.
Yaw's closed its doors nearly 20 years ago after almost six decades in the Hollywood district. But if devotees cannot reclaim the hormones or the 25-cent-a-gallon gasoline that fueled their perpetual circles around the popular spot, they can at least relive the burgers with the special sauce.
Volunteers will dust off the recipes Saturday at a fund-raiser to benefit the Hollywood Theatre. The event is part of Hollywood Walk & Shop, a guided walking tour designed by the Hollywood Boosters to promote retail activity in the neighborhood.
Event organizer John Perkins says proceeds from the Battle of the Burgers fund-raiser will help restore the cinema marquee. He expects to sell as many as 2,000 hamburgers to excited locals. 'They can't seem to wait until the 19th,' he says.
Yaw's did big business from the time it opened in 1926, launched by a former truck salesman named Winfred Yaw. For decades it combined with the opulent Hollywood Theatre also built in 1926 to form a potent one-two entertainment punch. The neighborhood took its name from the theater.
Yaw was a big-hearted innovator from the get-go. Granddaughter Carol Eldridge says he devised a two-sided broiler that allowed him to cook both sides of a burger at once, never bothering to patent the technology. He is variously credited with inventing the hamburger bun and the thick milkshake, although the claims are hard to prove.
'He was just a smart guy,' says Eldridge, assistant general manager of the Seattle Yacht Club. 'He was the nicest, friendliest man. Everybody loved him. I think that created the feeling of Yaw's. Everybody wanted to go there.'
The immediate success of the restaurant allowed it to grow quickly. Yaw's saw several incarnations, expanding and twice changing Hollywood locations. By the time it arrived at 2001 N.E. 40th Ave. in 1955, it was a landmark.
'Everybody flowed in and out of Yaw's on their way to everywhere else,' says Mike Sweeney, a Lincoln High School teacher who grew up in Northeast Portland. 'Yaw's could seat a couple hundred people. It took up the entire block. The police would actually come in to direct traffic.
'You'd see everybody,' says Sweeney, who cooked at the restaurant in the early '70s. 'I remember seeing Mark Hatfield and Gerry Frank. I remember Walter Powell, the man who started Powell's Books. All kinds of people. Hatfield would sit out at the counter. I can't remember what he'd order. He'd sit out there and schmooze.'
'I went there almost every day after school,' says Pam Mountain, Grant High class of '66. 'At night, you didn't even bother with the drive-in. It was always full.' Instead, Mountain and her friends would cruise around the establishment.
'I had a hot car when I was 16,' says Mountain, remembering her '64 Ford Falcon Sprint with the convertible top. 'I guess I was a little spoiled.
'We never got in any trouble. I don't even think we picked up any guys. We just drove around and looked pretty. I don't know what those Franklin (High School) girls did.'
'I lived at Yaw's,' remembers Peggy Wood, who attended Holy Child Academy, class of '57. 'It was the place for everybody on the east side to be. Once you got your license, the first place your parents ever let you take the car was the drive-in.'
Wood, an accountant for a Northwest Portland advertising firm, admits to some high-school high jinks. 'They had the order of buns,' she says. 'You'd go in and say, 'Please toast my buns' or 'Please gravy my buns,' or you'd say, 'Oh, by the way, scratch my buns.' '
And then there was Officer Bob, the Tootsie Roll Cop. 'I don't know what his job was. He wore his police uniform. He gave us Tootsie Rolls,' Mountain says.
'That used to be part of my district when I worked traffic over there,' says Bob Svilar, the retired Portland cop who moonlighted at Yaw's throughout the '60s. 'Some of the Friday and Saturday nights we had four police officers over there. It was a constant flow of traffic.'
Svilar says somebody noticed that youngsters at the drive-in weren't getting the free penny candy available to patrons indoors. Yaw was persuaded to give it away outside. Officer Bob handled the distribution.
'I remember the Tootsie Rolls,' says Perkins, Grant High class of '72. 'When I was a kid, it was the only place I could get a Tootsie Roll.'
'It was a fantastic place,' says Svilar, 78. 'It was like a big family. Old Mr. Yaw was like the grandfather of the whole group.'
Win Yaw died in 1967 at age 80. By the '70s, something was different. Svilar watched turbulent social changes color the outlook of the country's youth. 'Their future was so uncertain,' he says. The family opened restaurants in other locations; some say it stretched the business thin. Steve Yaw, the third-generation owner, says the death knell came when the city, with light rail coming, rerouted traffic away from the restaurant.
'They ruined Hollywood,' Yaw says. 'It's too bad. We went from $8,000 a day to $1,500.' The toasted buns, the chess pie, the Green Rivers disappeared. Yaw's Top Notch closed in 1985. A McDonald's stands in its place.
'It hurts my heart to look at that,' says Mike Sweeney, Benson Tech, class of '66.
Mountain wishes she could be certain, as her parents were, that her teenagers were hanging out at a family-run business in the neighborhood. 'My parents didn't mind me going to Yaw's,' she says. 'My kids go to the mall, and I don't know where they are.'