Photos by Asia Morris.
When Kim Finholt was a student at Woodrow Wilson Classical High School in Long Beach (class of ‘75), she would frequent a little shack-like eatery on Fourth Street, where one could buy 25-cent hamburgers and witness their creation by the restaurant's workers.
Over the past 20 years, seven different owners have operated the tiny restaurant at 3701 East Fourth Street, known for consisting of not much more than a kitchen and an outdoor patio, and for housing MVPs, before it expanded into a local chain and moved down the street.
But long before MVPs took over the landmark location nestled snugly between residences, the eatery occupied even less space as an old army frozen food locker-turned sandwich stand, purchased by William and Beatrice Kolander from Army surplus in 1952, according to a 1977 Long Beach Independent article (now the Long Beach Press Telegram). The “original sandwich stand and fence” was permitted that same year, according to Long Beach Development Services.
The article describes the Whistle Stop’s owner at the time, Michael Ferrera, 25, as “the latest occupant of the hot seat." It states that he and former owners of the joint called it "the only eatery of its kind in the Long Beach area and possibly in the state.”
The approximately six-foot tall locker, according to the article, felt like an oven to Ferrera with its “metal roof and sizzling hamburger grill,” while in 1952 when the Whistle Stop opened, locals and motorcyclists who stopped by for a burger paid a whopping 11 cents for the meal.
Finholt is now the co-owner of the location and the original food locker it came with, alongside Bob Thurston, a retired Long Beach Fire Department captain and Wilson alumni (class of ‘72). Finholt, who also works in the Salvation Army’s drug and rehabilitation program, teaching her kitchen staff of nine enrollees culinary job skills, while feeding 90 people three meals a day, now spends most of her time between the two passions.
“We had history here as kids,” she said. “A lot of people come up and say that they went to Fremont… I’m talking about people in their 50s and 60s saying how they used to come here.”
She runs the business, day in and day out, and has tried her hardest to bring back memories past in a modern manner with a vintage flair, starting from the classic American fare right down to the decor.
She gutted the place, and, of course, left the army locker intact, which now solely encases the kitchen. Finholt says the blinking arrow sign is original to the property, an item she took great pains to restore. And while her patrons begged her to rewind time and charge 25 cents a burger, nostalgia, unfortunately, can't pay the bills on its own.
“It’s really bringing back a nice memory for people of their childhood," she said. "And it’s really nice to hear their stories, like how they used to come here for a shake and a burger and then would go down to the beach.”
The revamped Whistle Stop menu features a fresh, hand-pressed patty made from 100 percent ground beef, a not-too-complicated order based on the original 1970s-era offering.
“I didn’t want to get anything preformed,” she said. “I wanted to take it back like [The Whistle Stop] used to do it, hand-press it then throw it on the grill, just like you would get at a home barbecue or your mom would make.”
When Finholt talks about the rest of the menu, she doesn’t just explain it away, she genuinely raves about it.
“We had to bring the fried green tomatoes back,” she said. “It’s a beautiful sandwich. We use a beautiful golden egg bun that’s baked daily. And then the grilled cheese is on a brioche bread that is just fabulous. It toasts up beautifully.”
And please, please don’t get her started on the sauce made specially for each heaping basket of parmesan-sprinkled, rosemary hand-cut fries. It’s a simple, yet innovative combination of ingredients at an eatery that caters to the philosophy of, if it works, go with it.
“We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel,” Finholt explained. “We wanted to do about five or six things that we could intertwine and do ‘em the five or six best things that we could do.”
And back to the sauce.
“It’s got rosemary and parmesan mixed in with it and the longer it sits the better it gets because the rosemary just affects it," she said. "The essence of that rosemary just goes all the way through it.”
The house-made and sliced rosemary parmesan potato chips also subscribe to this worthwhile marriage of two flavors, with one order of freshly made, too-hot-to-eat-right-away basket of crispy goodness delivered with plenty to go around the table.
If you’re not full enough already, date shakes made with dates from Hadley’s Fruit Orchards, one of the stops Finholt used to make on her way to Palm Springs during high school spring breaks, are a signature menu item not to be overlooked.
“People really seem to like them, but you would be surprised at how many people come up and think it's a shake with two straws that you're supposed to share with a date,” she said with a laugh. “It’s something that nobody really has, so we thought it could be our signature.”
The lack of space at the Whistle Stop is more of a blessing than a curse, as it keeps the ingredients moving through the restaurant quickly. There’s one refrigerator, a one-door freezer and dry storage, meaning all foods are freshly acquired, quickly used, and low in variety, but it’s a low variety of high quality, to be sure; the only cheeses used, aside from specials, are two absolutely drool-inducing goudas.
Since the newest Fourth Street eatery opened in June, it’s been about working out the kinks and adapting to consumers’ wants, which have grown steadily for the past two months. It’s about pleasing the neighborhood and giving Long Beach not just another unique small business, but something that truly represents a part of its history.
“We’re still a little bit of a work in progress and we’re trying to figure it out,” said Finholt. “We are hoping to make the community proud of what we put here.”
For more information about the Whistle Stop, located at 3701 East Fourth Street, visit the website here and follow @whistlestoplbc on Instagram for more pictures of your favorite foods. The eatery currently accepts debit or credit for order over $10. And if you're feeling stuck inside, order delivery by clicking here.
Garlic cheese fries anyone?