Los Angeles is a town filled with donuts. And nothing says “we sell donuts” better than a giant donut sitting on top of a small shack. You can find five of these iconic restaurants throughout greater Los Angeles.
The Legacy of Big Donut Drive-In
Back in the 1950s, restaurateur Russell C. Wendell had a dream of owning a series of donut shops. And at the center of this dream, a giant donut floating above the donut shop. So that’s what he did — built a donut shop with a giant donut on top of it.
He called the shop Big Donut Drive-In and he eventually opened ten similar donut shops under that name throughout the greater Los Angles area. Each one was just a small, square shop topped with a 32-foot wide concrete donut.
This was during a time when the automobile had all but supplanted other modes of travel in Southern California, and these massive replica donuts, designed by structural engineer Richard Bradshaw (the same guy who designed that funky building at LAX) and constructed of steel and gunite, were intended to catch the eyes of hungry motorists cruising by.
In the 1970s, Wendell switched his focus from donuts to a chain of taco shops and sold off all his big donut shops to other glazed-minded entrepreneurs. Of Wendell’s original ten shops, four remain in greater Los Angeles (with another one in Bellflower that’s now a bagel shop).
Without a doubt, Randy’s Donuts on Manchester Ave in Inglewood is the most famous of the giant donut stands in Los Angeles. It’s also probably the most famous donut shop throughout the world.
The iconic shop stands right next to the 405 and is both easily seen and accessed on a drive to the Los Angeles International Airport. You can even see it as you fly into Los Angleles — many planes landing at LAX fly right over it.
Originally built in 1953, Randy’s gets all the giant donut press — and those lucrative Hollywood partnerships like Clifford the Big Red Dog and Ghostbusters: Afterlife. It’s also appeared in numerous movies, TV shows, and music videos. It (or a parody of it) has even been featured in cartoons and animated shows.
On a recent visit, we saw a couple of fellas in the parking lot holding up a small Iron Man figure in a forced-perspective re-creation of the end-credits scene from Iron Man 2. That probably happens a lot.
Randy’s has been expanding the brand in recent years, and today there are a number of locations throughout Southern California — but only the Downey, Costa Mesa, and Inglewood locations sport a giant donut.
Donut King II
This donut shop on Western Ave in Gardena is the third Big Donut Drive-In location Wendell opened back in the mid-1950s. In addition to the name of the shop, the donut also displays the tagline “Hot-Fresh” on its dimply surface.
No word on what happened to Donut King I.
The donut shop now known as Kindle’s on Normandie was the first-ever Big Donut Drive-In. It was built in 1950. Curiously, it’s the only shop among the remaining giant donuts that hyphenates Do-Nuts.
A gent named Kindle bought this former Big Donut Drive-In from Wendell in the 1970s and changed the name accordingly. Even though Mr. Kindle has since sold the shop, the name seems to have stuck.
Kindle’s also seems to be the dirtiest of the remaining giant donuts — the L.A. grime is thicker than chocolate glaze across the top.
Dale’s was the fifth of Wendell’s original giant donuts. Today it features the largest, boldest text (and without a white outline) of any other giant donut.
Like Kindle’s, the Dale’s donut could use a good scrubbing. And, more than any other of the giant donuts, Dale’s really attracts the birds.
If you want to try a Dale’s donut, you have to get there in the early morning. Or in the evening. But if you’re looking for some mid-afternoon sweet relief, this isn’t the place — it keeps somewhat odd hours.
The Donut Hole
The only shop on this list that incorporates the giant donut into the shop proper — quite possibly the only donut shop in Los Angeles county — that features true programmatic architecture (as opposed to programmatic signage).
Programmatic architecture is big in Los Angeles. It’s a phenomenon where the thing you’re eating is served from a building designed to look like that thing. The Donut Hole accomplishes this. All the other former Big Donut Drive-Ins are just huts adorned with programmatic signage. A fine distinction perhaps, but an important one in the world of serious programmatic aficionados.
Built in 1968, the Donut Hole is the sole survivor of what was once a chain of Donut Holes throughout the eastern side of Los Angeles County. It’s also the most fun to visit — you actually drive right into the center of a giant donut to order. After ordering, you drive out through the hole of another giant donut. It’s a fun experience.
You can also walk up to the window on the side and order, but that’s much less fun. The Donut Hole combats the bird-attraction problem that Dale’s suffers from with a fake owl perched on top of the exit donut. The strategy seems effective as there was nary a bird in sight.
Angel Food Donuts
There’s another group of giant donuts in Long Beach, remnants of the once omnipresent Mrs. Chapman’s Angel Food Donuts. There are only four of these big donuts left in the Long Beach area, and these shops are on the short list for future explorations.
But how are the donuts?
It’s hard to find a a bad donut in Los Angeles — as long as that donut is fresh. And each of the above shops has its super fans and its detractors. We tried donuts from all of them (except Dale’s, because of the hours), and they all delivered a satisfying donut experience.
Our panel of expert tasters was divided on a favorite. Some preferred Donut King II, another was fond of Kindle’s, and Randy’s is always a pretty solid choice. I’m partial to The Donut Hole myself, but I admit that’s probably as much for the experience as the donuts.
But if you’re wondering about where to get the best donut in Los Angeles, right now that’s easily The Margarita at Trejo’s Donuts.
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