Restaurants come and go. Foodie tastes are flighty. So after 50 years at 5920 Sunset Boulevard, why is Arby’s of Hollywood still hopping?
One answer to the restaurant’s longevity is classic – location, location, location.
Another is that this food is pretty darn good.
It’s all in the family
Mike Leviton, 36, a Chicago attorney, and Marilyn Leviton, 34, an elementary school teacher, packed up their four-bedroom split-level in Skokie, Illinois, and moved their three children into a Sepulveda, California, apartment in 1967, betting the odds on a new American food contender — Arby’s.
The story goes that Mike’s partner, Walter Beck, scouted the location. It was perfect, directly below an unobstructed view of the iconic Hollywood sign, and within spitting distance of industry strongholds like Paramount and KTLA, as well as many other movie, television and recording studios full of hungry potential patrons. There was just one catch — the property’s owner, Honey Shusett, wasn’t selling. So the partners took out a long-term lease, and construction began. Mike sank a good-luck penny at the base of the building’s eastern stone pillar (since altered in subsequent expansions).
At grand opening time, January 5, 1969, the whole family was present: author Judy, age 11, along with her older brother, Bob, 13, and younger sister, Ruth, 9, the girls in yellow gingham cowgirl shirts with pearl snaps, all wearing kerchiefs and chef hats (pictured above and recreated at the 50th anniversary celebration).
The menu was limited to one sandwich – regular or junior-sized freshly-sliced roast beef on a buttered toasted sesame-seed bun, with two signature condiments, Horsey Sauce and Arby’s sauce.
Triangular potato cakes, individual bags of chips, and a choice of a milkshake or one of three soft drinks served out of full-size wooden barrels completed the meal. A glass roaster on the front counter displayed a rotating chunk of beef, attesting to the authenticity of the sandwich. The price of the regular sandwich? Seventy-nine cents – quite a bit more than the hamburgers other chains purveyed at the time, but oh, so much tastier!
Business was brisk from the get-go, and has continued to this day
The years brought many changes to Hollywood and to the business. The menu grew, with more regular choices, and a changing array of limited-time specials. The dining room expanded to offer more seating. A drive-thru was added in about 1980. Construction on a high-rise across Sunset eventually fully obscured the view of the Hollywood sign through the front window.
The restaurant’s interior and exterior have appeared in several movies and TV shows. The brand gained a quirky luster from the likes of Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, and Zach Galifianakis, whose Emmy campaign for “Baskets,” involved renting the unit for an FYC party, during which he staffed the drive-thru window himself while his cast mates worked the counter.
Arby’s of Hollywood has always been a family operation
Mike was a standout boss, with many of the current crew working at the Hollywood landmark for years — he was as loyal to them as they were to him. On the day of Mike’s memorial service in March 2013, the crew closed the restaurant and almost all of the team members at the time attended in uniform, traveling to a small temple in Calabasas to pay their heartfelt respects.
Mike was General Manger until his death at 81 years old, never losing interest in the business, its team members or the neighborhood, even in failing health.
Three out of his and Marilyn’s four children, put in stints behind the counter at various times. Bob stepped in as manager at 22, when Mike and Marilyn took an eight-month sabbatical in the late 70’s. Bob and daughter Ruth continue to contribute to the unit, tracking business and providing accounting services, respectively. Daughter Debby’s husband, Gary took over as General Manager after Mike’s death, and Marilyn, now 86, visits regularly to keep a general eye on things.
Long-term land owner and landlady Honey died in 2015, and the property was sold to a new owner who has big plans for the site, including a mixed-use high rise. The lease is secure through 2030 but after that, it is doubtful that this landmark restaurant will continue to operate at its half-century-old location.
What will happen to Arby’s of Hollywood, unit 150 out of more than 3,000 Arby’s locations worldwide? That question is tied up with the futures of Sunset Boulevard, and Hollywood itself.
Arby’s of Hollywood celebrated 50 years of continuous business
On Saturday, January 5, the anniversary of the restaurant’s grand opening, the Levitons rolled the price of the original sandwich back to 1969, when it cost 79 cents, while offering Arby’s signature Jamocha shakes for 50 cents. There was birthday cake and free vintage-style t-shirts, a cowboy band, and a guest book for customers to jot down memories.
In the meantime, whether you’re a Hollywood celeb or a longtime area resident, what personal stories might you have to share about where your neighborhood mom-and-pop franchise figured in your life?
Was there a meet-cute while you were in high-school? Did a first job there keep you in enough scratch to bring that date to dances and games? What about late-night runs there during college to satisfy your hunger? Did you drop in often enough that the crew knew your name and your usual order, like Hollywood Housewife blogger Laura Tremaine? The Levitons would love to see your stories and pictures on Facebook and Instagram – please post using the hashtag #arbysofhollywood.
Would you like a Jamocha shake to jog your memory?
Judy Sibelman is a contributor to Inspire Stories. She was present at the grand opening of Arby’s of Hollywood on January 5, 1969, with her father, the restaurant’s General Manager Mike Leviton, and the rest of the Leviton family.