"It is no secret that David Lynch, the writer-director-composer-painter, has an unusual relationship with Bob's Big Boy," begins a 1999 Los Angeles Times article on the auteur of films like Eraserhead and Blue Velvet. "For seven years in the 1980s he ate lunch there every day, ordering cup after cup of over-sweetened coffee and a single chocolate milkshake while scribbling notes on Bob's little square napkins." He took pains, notes reporter Amy Wallace, "to arrive at Bob's at precisely 2:30 p.m. each day. The reason: It increased the odds that he would encounter perfection."
"If you go earlier, at lunchtime, they're making a lot of chocolate milkshakes. The mixture has to cool in a machine, but if it doesn't sit in there long enough — when they're serving a lot of them — it's runny," Wallace quotes Lynch as saying. "At 2:30, the milkshake mixture hasn't been sitting there too long, but you've got a chance for it to be just great."
For his pains, he received "only three perfect milkshakes out of more than 2,500. But that wasn't the point. For Lynch, it was enough to know he had set the stage for excellence to occur," believing that "whether with milkshakes or movies," one "must make room for inspiration to strike — to lay the proper groundwork for greatness to take hold."
When the 1980s British television series The Incredibly Strange Film Show devoted an episode to Lynch, it naturally went to Los Angeles not just to interview him but to shoot some footage at Bob's, the sacred space itself. In the clip at the top of the post, you can see host Jonathan Ross, seated in one of the retro diner's booths and Lynchianly dressed in a white shirt buttoned all the way up, describe how, after an "all-American lunch," the director would embark on "marathon coffee-drinking sessions. Fueled by the caffeine and his excessive sugar intake, he'd then spend the afternoon writing down ideas for movies on the napkins helpfully provided by Bob."
In the interview that follows, Lynch himself confirms all this. "I was into Bob's halfway through Eraserhead," he says, establishing the chronology. "The end of Dune" — his traumatic, failed experience with big-budget studio production — "was pretty much the end of Bob's." Even Lynch's daughter Jennifer, for a time her father's Bob's-going companion, reminisces about "the drawing on napkins" and the "tons of coffee with lots of sugar." In this late-80s interview, Lynch describes himself as "heavily into sugar. I call it 'granulated happiness.' It's just a great help, a friend."
Lynch's reputation for drinking Bob's milkshakes long outlasted his actual habit. Charlie Rose makes a point of asking about it in the clip in the middle of the post, prompting Lynch to explain the reasoning behind his daily trips — both literally and metaphorically, since when Rose asks if all the sugar got him high, Lynch admits that "it is like a drug, I suppose, because it revs you up." Though by all accounts still a prodigious drinker of coffee and smoker of cigarettes, Lynch has grown more health-conscious in recent years, a shift that may well have begun when, for reasons of his own, he went behind his beloved Bob's and climbed into its dumpster. "I found one of these cartons that milkshakes came from," says Lynch in the more recent interview clip above. "Every ingredient ended in -zene or -ate. There was nothing natural anywhere near that carton."
Even though that discovery put an end to Lynch's 2:30 appearances, all his coffee-soaked, sugar-saturated afternoons spent at Bob's had already filled him with ideas. One day, for example, "I saw a man come in. He came to the counter, and that's all I remember of this man, but from seeing him came a feeling, and that's where Frank Booth came from." Blue Velvet's psychotic, gas-huffing, Dennis Hopper-portrayed villain aside, Lynch fans who make their own pilgrimage to Bob's Big Boy even today will understand how well its sensibility may have resonated with the filmmaker's obvious attraction to midcentury Americana. But as we've learned from his life as well as his work, it's best not to go around back.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.