The History Of Ben Frank's on Sunset Strip
"Maybe if I pass my driving test I could get a gig drivin' that bus that pick the freaks up in front of Ben Frank's, right?
- “Lyrics from “Help, I’m a Rock” Frank Zappa & the Mothers Of Invention
"Ben Frank's" once located at 8585 Sunset Strip was centrally located between Hollywood and Beverly Hills. Its legacy remains one of the most famous coffee shops in history. This iconic diner was a hangout for rockers during the 1960s and 1970s after late night gigs. It was also the headquarters for young youth culture during the Sunset Strip Riots. One may even have been lucky enough to hob-nob with music luminaries such as Frank Zappa, Bob Dylan, or Jim Morrison.
I’ve been studying it's history for decades, and I’ve recently learned something that has come to my attention. But, before I reveal it, let’s take a trip back to one of the most beloved coffee shops in American history.
According to Wikipedia "Ben Frank’s" opened in 1962 by Arthur Simms and Bob Ehrma. Although, diving a bit deeper I see that Ben Frank’s had an advertisement in the local news paper seeking a cook in 1960.
Simms and Ehrma also owned the Copper Penny coffee shop and the other Wooden Shoe chains. In 1976, they acquired The Kettle restaurant in Manhattan Beach (still in business) and in the 1970s, they became partners in the French Market restaurant in West Hollywood which sadly closed in 2016.
"Ben Frank’s" was an attractive late night hang-out, not only for the locals, but for musicians, beatnik types, & hippies. The A-framed structure which resembles a lodge or a chalet, had a Googie style swooped roof and neon sign that could be easily seen when cruising the strip. When local clubs closed for the night, young kids often congregated to "Ben Frank's" for coffee and an up-all-night chat. Purchasing a cheap cup of joe was enough to allow one to sit in the place for hours.
"Ben Frank's in 1966. Photo by Ed Ruscha
"Ben Frank's" can be briefly visible in the 1966 concert film "The Big T.N.T. Show".
Also happening in 1966.....
"Monkees” creators Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider were crafting a fresh new television series inspired by "Beatlemania". They set out to cast a rock group similar to the Fab Four. The original casting call for "The Monkees" asked for 'Ben Frank's types’.
This was the announcement published in the " and " hung on the door - shorthand for the tribe that hung around.
By 1968, rock 'n roll luminaries became regulars. Fans could rub shoulders with famous musicians such as "The Byrds" and Frank Zappa - to pop-art sensations such as Andy Warhol and Ed Ruscha.
And legend has it that the "Buffalo Springfield" formed in the parking lot during the era of the Sunset Strip riots. In 1966 hundreds of local teens rebelled against the ridiculous enforced curfew and took to the strip to protest. The "Buffalo Springfield" were inspired by those events and wrote a revolutionary song called, "For What It's Worth." It all that blossomed from Ben Frank's.
I remember eating at "Ben Frank’s" many times in high school during the 1980s. And of course it became a favorite after party joint in the 1990s when I lived off Doheny & Sunset. Wish I had saved a menu, although I did find these matchbooks on Ebay.
If I wasn’t at "Ben Frank’s", then you could easily find me at "SHIP’S", a space-age era coffee shop known for their toasters on the tables. I grew up on coffee shop culture and I don’t think I’ve ever prepared myself for the lack of coffee shops we have today…
Preservation at its finest!
Earlier this year I was contacted by a Vintage Los Angeles follower named Lisa Gilmour, who informed me that "Ben Frank's" was actually named after her grandfather, Mr. Ben Frank who opened a coffee shop after his own name in 1949.
And here's photo to prove it!
Ben's original location only lasted a few years. When it closed, and Bob Erhman decided to open a coffee shop on the strip, he named it after his friend, Ben Frank. That's because Ben was instrumental in showing Bob the ropes of the restaurant business when he was just starting out.
Another LA History Note: Ben Frank and his father, Abe Frank, ran the Ambassador Hotel from when it opened in 1921-1938.
Love learning the deep roots of my home town!
Alison Martino is a writer, television producer and personality, and L.A. pop culture historian. She founded the FACEBOOK PAGE Vintage Los Angeles in 2010. In addition to writing for Los Angeles Magazine and VLA, Martino muses on L.A’s. past and present on Twitter and Instagram