It was the 1950s. America was a superpower, and the Los Angeles area was the center of it. The space race was on. A car culture was emerging. So were millions of postwar babies. Businesses needed ways to get families out of their automobiles and into coffee shops, bowling alleys, gas stations and motels. They needed bright signs and designs showing that the future was now. They needed color and new ideas.

They needed Googie.

This whimsical, Space Age look grew out of the Midcentury Modern style -- think LAX's flying-saucer-like Theme Building -- and became synonymous with Southern California's fun-loving lifestyle.

Even the story of how Googie got its name is fanciful. Yale professor Douglas Haskell spotted the Googie coffee shop, the eponymous building that once sat at Crescent Heights and Sunset boulevards. He declared the style "Googie" in a 1952 House and Home magazine article.

"Googie is a sub-category of Midcentury Modern that is bolder, more exaggerated in forms," said Alan Hess, author of "Googie Redux: Ultramodern Roadside Architecture." Commercial architects such as Wayne McAllister and the team of Louis Armet and Eldon Davis were experimenting with new materials and finding creative ways to lure folks into their buildings, Hess said.

Like most trends, Googie peaked and then began to disappear. Anaheim, once a gold mine of '50s architecture, lost most of the Googie motels that bordered Disneyland in the 1990s, architectural historian Daniel Paul said in an interview.

Which is OK with some people.

"People aren't generally able to appreciate architectural history that happened in their lifetime," said Chris Jepsen, an Anaheim-based historian who also runs SpaceAgeCity.com, a website covering the Sputnik era. "You tell people that the restaurant they went to as a teenager has history and they look at you like you have three heads."

But for others, Googie represents an era of hope and optimism. Either way, that carefree attitude now defines Southern California culture. Perhaps, these not-so-ancient relics help remind us of why we've come to love it here.

I asked Googie enthusiasts for their favorite examples of the style and compiled this list of what might be considered the best local examples. Keep in mind that they often are located in neighborhoods and suburbs that don't have the funds or the need to update and modernize every few years, so these won't necessarily be the ritziest places in town. Still, these are worth making a detour.

So here is the springtime SoCal Googie tour. (Note: More fun if taken in a DeSoto Fireflite.)

BAHOOKA

4501 Rosemead Blvd.

Rosemead

(626) 285-1241

Opened: 1976.

Key characteristics: Polynesian-style design, plant life. Similar styles include the Mission Tiki Drive-In, Montclair; the Tiki Ti bar, Silver Lake; the Tonga Hut, North Hollywood.

Pop culture talking points: Parts of Johnny Depp's 1998 film "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" were filmed here. Rufus, the pacu fish that talks to Depp, lives in the tank next to the hostess stand.

Why it matters: Now that the Beverly Hills Trader Vic's, the epitome of Polynesian culture reinterpreted on our shores, has been demoted to little more than a poolside lounge at the Beverly Hilton, it's up to off-the-beaten-path finds to keep the tiki torch glowing.