Friday, January 17, 2020

Historic Dining: Eating in Some of the West's Oldest Restaurants

Snow flurries make wispy clouds across the pavement. Train passengers are told the Truckee Pass is closed with heavy snow and they’ll have to make due here on a cold Reno night until the California Zephyr can continue on the rails to Oakland.

Wearily, a passenger wanders down the street from the downtown station until he sees a cheap, basic looking hotel. Getting a clean but Spartan room for the night, the desk clerk tells him dinner is served downstairs starting at 5:00.

Showing up early, he has a stiff cocktail at the bar before being shown to a seat at a long table in the next room.  Other stranded strangers are seated with him at the table, even though the room is more empty than full. A pitcher of red wine and glasses are on the table for the diners to help themselves to and to lubricate the dinner banter.

As polite conversations start up, the food is brought out. The pea soup is exquisitely hot on this cold night. The large salad bowl has more than enough for everybody. The beans are savory. And, what’s this?  Small, thin strips of meat are served with jack cheese.

“Pickled tongue,” the server explains.

With wrinkled nose, but curious, the traveler takes a bite.  “Delicious,” he admits.

Thick lamb chops are brought, some of the best he’s ever had. After dessert, sated and maybe just a bit tipsy, the tired traveler sleeps easily until the train can resume its trip over the mountains to the San Francisco bay.

Scenes like this have played out for over a century in Nevada’s other city but at one place, you can still get a taste of that experience. The old SantaFe Hotel, behind the mammoth Harrah’s casino, still rents basic rooms and still serves a seemingly endless Basque meal…family style…in its unchanged dining room.

This is a bit of history that you can experience now. It’s not recreated, it’s not trendy… it’s just the way it’s always been.

I like to call it historical dining.

One of my favorite ways to eat is to find these old gems and have a meal the same way diners did 30, 40, maybe even 100 years or more ago. California (and a bit of Nevada) is sprinkled with such geriatric establishments.

On the corner of Geary and Van Ness lies the 70ish year old Tommy’s Joynt. It’s basically just a beer and sandwich hall.  Locals come in to get roast beef, sliced to order, and a cheap beer to wash it down.

Not fancy or pricy, but just good, solid food served the same way today as it was when it opened in 1947. Where else in The City are you going to get a solid sandwich and a mug of Anchor Steam for less than $12? The ancient dining hall and quirky décor are just gravy on top of that.

While you may not want to drink your lunch, La Rocca’sCorner in San Francisco is an old dive bar with legends about mob hits and nefarious doings in its back rooms and basements. Don’t worry about food, though. The owner usually puts out a spread that the bar flies help themselves to.

It is a true and authentic dive and the crowd here is among the friendliest you’ll find.  Not much has changed in this circa 1934 bar. Leo Larocca is no longer with us, so he doesn’t play is guitar or accordion in the corner anymore and there are a couple of TVs for sports.

You’ll still find Sy behind the bar dishing out drinks, feisty banter, and hugs for the ladies.

Going east, up high into the Sierras near Lake Tahoe, you'll find the Gold Rush era Kirkwood Inn near the ski resort of the same name on highway 88, the Carson Pass.

Since 1864, this little cabin has been keeping high country travelers warm and well fed. Have some prime rib or a satisfying sandwich as you belly up to the same bar that Snowshow Thompson sat at.

Down in the Central Valley, ice cream fans can satisfy their sweet tooth at a couple of century old creameries.

Superior Dairy in Hanford dishes out giant servings of a few flavors in their ancient shop across from the town square. Their SOS sundae is truly a sight to see.

Bakersfield’s Dewars Ice Cream and Candies has a more extensive menu in both its original location downtown and a new, more modern branch on the west side of highway 99.

Philippe’s in downtown Los Angeles is well into its second century of serving its signature French dip sandwiches (which are said to have been invented here but an equally old Cole’s nearby begs to differ) is still the place where you sit with strangers on long tables, sawdust on the floor, with a news and candy stand by the door.

Expert servers at the counter serve such delicacies as purple pickled eggs and pig’s feet from an extensive menu. And the hot mustard, oh-the hot mustard, on each table takes that basic sandwich to new heights.

Down at the beach, the Bull Pen still serves a thick and delicious prime rib in a 65 year old dining room disguised behind a dive bar in Redondo Beach.  Locals come early to imbibe and hear corny jokes from the bartender.

Well hidden in a Redondo Riviera strip mall on a block progress has passed by, somehow people find it and fill it up every night. Some of them might even be the original customers.

For more refined tastes, hungry customers head east to Rancho Cucamonga where the 1848 era Sycamore Inn delights with its steak Dianne and extensive wine list while its younger (only 70+ years) neighbor, the Magic Lamp, serves superb crab cake, steaks, and chops in its wonderfully whimsical building…built by the Clearman family of Northwoods Inn fame…fronted by a large lamp shaped sign, belching out real flames nightly.

While in the Inland Empire, after spending a day on Route 66, tasting olives from the historic Graber farm in Ontario or sipping wine from the old Galleano Winery in Mira Loma, we like to end our day as we started this story, with another Basque meal at the old Centro Basco in Chino.

Also starting life as a boarding house for lonely shepherds from the old country, the almost 80 year old restaurant has shed its rooms-for-rent, although it kept the handball court out back for pickup games. 

Run by the heirs of the Basque family that has owned it for generations, it also has dinners with others at long tables but most customers these days prefer the more traditional restaurant seating in the back half of the restaurant.

Again, diners are brought out heaping bowls of soup (their split pea is among the best I’ve had), salad, cheese, beans, pasta, vegetables, and entrée.  Tongue is only by request here but is also one of the best things on the menu.

These are just a few of the dozens of old, sometimes musty, dining and drinking rooms sprinkled throughout the west. You may find one of your own on a slow road trip sometime.

With all the establishments listed here, one of the best things is sitting back with your full stomach, reveling in the unchanged dining experience that you’re amazed still exists in this modern age.

© 2016 – Darryl Musick
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