Summary: California's Route 66 restaurants serve up home-style American cooking.
Location: California's Mojave Desert is located roughly 1 hour east of Los Angeles and Orange County. These historic Route 66 cafes can be reached via Interstates 15 and 40.
Price Range: $
In his famous novel, “The Grapes of Wrath,” John Steinbeck dubbed U. S. Route 66 the “Mother Road.”
And like a good mother, this historic highway is chock-full of Route 66 restaurants that serve great home-style cooking.
In its 2,400 miles from Chicago to California, Route 66 diners specialize in regional comfort food — from hearty Midwestern burgers to spicy Southwestern chili.
During the earlier years, the restaurants served as much-needed rest stops for road-weary motorists to refuel on both gasoline and good grub before continuing their journeys.
Today, many of these diners stand in ruin, including the Workman Cafe, a former cafe, gas station and motel near Park Moabi Road and the Colorado River; Bell’s Towing and Cafe, an adobe gas station/cafe that was destroyed by fire in Essex; and the abandoned Roadrunner Cafe and Gas Station at Chambless, which was used for a Dodge television commercial in 1988.
In California's Mojave Desert, several diners still dot the stretch of Old Route 66, from Jedro’s Wagon Wheel in Needles to the Summit Inn on the Cajon Pass. Here are a few Route 66 eateries in California's Mojave Desert, which are still as charming and kitschy as the first day they opened.
Note: Be sure to call ahead, as hours can vary. Some have since shut down or changed ownership.
Perched at the top of the Cajon Pass, the Summit Inn, a quirky old-style diner, has been serving up good old-fashioned home cooking since 1951.
“We’re famous for our date shakes and our Hillbilly Burgers, which are hamburgers served on a toasted garlic roll with fries,” said office manager Karen Dore. “Lately, we’ve also been featuring ostrich steaks, burgers and omelets from the OK Corral in Apple Valley, which have been going over fantastic.”
The 70-seat diner is filled with Route 66 novelty items and a gift shop. A vintage jukebox (that still works once in a while) plays hits from the Supremes, Rolling Stones and other oldies.
When you stop in, say hello to Hilda Fish, who recently celebrated her 38th year at the eatery this past Memorial Day.
During her many years as a waitress, Fish met countless famous guests, including Elvis Presley in 1965. “We used to have his records in the jukebox, but for some reason we had changed them that day,” Fish remembers.
“He came in on his way to Las Vegas, and he was standing at the jukebox in the center of the room. When he saw that there were none of his records in it, he kicked the jukebox and left. He was really mad — and didn’t even stay to eat.”
Other famous customers have included Delta Burke, George Strait, Flip Wilson, Pearl Bailey and Pierce Brosnan.
Summit Inn; 6000 Mariposa Road, Oak Hills; 760-949-8688
The Village Cafe, one of Barstow’s most historic Route 66 eateries, has been in business for more than 65 years, says its owners Mary and Henry Wong.
The Wongs, who have owned the cafe for 25 years, serve up Chinese- American specialties including lemon chicken, cashew shrimp, sweet and sour pork and their famous Village Special Chow Mein. “We have a lot of regulars,” said Mary Wong.
The Village Cafe; 205 E. Main Street; Barstow; 760-256-5152
VICTORVILLE Emma Jean's Hollandburger Cafe
This friendly diner, located on D Street in Victorville, has been serving hungry guests since 1947.
Route 66 fans flock to Holland Burger restaurant during jaunts to Las Vegas (it's conveniently located off I-15) for their home-style 1/2-pound Holland Burgers and Trucker's Sandwiches, stuffed with cheese, bacon, chiles and roast beef. For breakfast, try their rib-sticking biscuits and gravy.
Just be sure to save room for dessert. Their cherry and peach cobblers are something special.
One of the most famous stops along Route 66 — Roy’s Cafe, Gas and Motel in Amboy — was built in 1938 by owner/mayor Buster Burris to accommodate the brisk traffic between Chicago and Los Angeles. Originally a successful auto parts house, the building was turned into a cafe in 1945.
Dubbing their business the “crustiest, dustiest gas stop in all of Route 66,” new owner Walt Wilson and manager Henry Orrante prided themselves on having one of the few restaurants still preserved in its original condition.
“Our biggest draw is our Route 66 Burger, which features double meat and double cheese,” said Wilson. “Our meat is really good.”
Harrison Ford — who filmed “American Graffiti” in nearby Apple Valley — often makes trips out to the restaurant to get his fix of their homestyle cooking. Clint Black and Anthony Hopkins (who “loves the grilled cheese”) have also stopped in.
Other signature items include homemade chili, ham and cheese sandwiches and old-fashioned lemonade. The secret to the restaurant’s longevity? “It’s the only thing in town,” laughs Wilson. “Plus, a lot of people are using the old road again.”
Roy’s Cafe; 6666 Old National Trails Highway, Amboy; 760-733-4263; on the Web at www.rt66roys.com. (Editor's Note: Roy's Cafe was sold and now owned by Albert Okura of Juan Pollo Restaurants).
Bagdad Cafe, owned by Andrea Pruett, needs little introduction. The site of the critically acclaimed 1988 movie (starring Jack Palance), and 1990 television series (starring Whoopi Goldberg and Jean Stapleton), this Newberry Springs eatery boasts a traditional homestyle menu named after the characters in the film.
Among the diner’s specialties: a Jack Palance Burger ($4.75), a 1⁄4-pound patty served with a few strips of bacon; Jasmin’s Chicken Fried Steak ($7.15); Eric’s Liver and Onions ($6.55) and Muenchgstettner’s Seafood Platter ($5.70-$10.25).
“People come here from all over the world,” said Pruett, citing French, German, Norwegian, Belgian and Japanese visitors.
“We also have many tour groups who come through on motorcycles on their way to Chicago.”
Famous customers have included Princess Stephanie and Prince Albert of Monaco (who ordered a grilled cheese), and Tommy and Pamela Lee, who buzzed in for a Zack Burger on their way to Lake Havasu.
The Ludlow Cafe was named in 1883 for William Ludlow, a master car repairman for Central Pacific. Once a coffee shop, gas motel and busy mini market for I-40 during Route 66’s heyday, the business was relocated two blocks west and is now co-owned and managed by Jenny Knoll.
The restaurant’s menu specializes in home-style favorites including barbecued beef sandwiches, ham and eggs, and homemade pies and desserts.
“We’re located in between a rock and a hard place, so it’s a great place to stop after the long drive from Needles,” said employee Christie Livingston, citing famous guests including Barbra Streisand and Vince Gill.
Inside, the diner is decorated in antiques from a past era including an old trunk, pick ax and other mining memorabilia. A gift shop next door offers Route 66 souvenirs including shirts and pins.
Ludlow Cafe; 68315 National Trails Highway, Ludlow; 760-733-4501
In Needles, Route 66 runs through Broadway Street and along Needles Highway, where many original motels and cafes can still be seen.
Jedro’s Wagon Wheel Restaurant is one not to be missed. Originally opened 50 years ago as a dance hall, the Wagon Wheel turned into a restaurant one year later.
“Back then, the restaurant had a sawdust floor and the waitresses wore guns on their hips,” said manager Retha Bagley. “They would dance for the customers and serve food and wine. It was one of the cowboy stops.”
Things haven’t changed much since then. Now a popular truck stop, the restaurant lures truckers and tourists with its famous chicken fried steak, barbecued ribs and savory Spanish sauce which is served on everything from omelets to tortilla chips. The California Burger features a 1/3rd-pound patty with bacon, Jack cheese and guacamole.
For breakfast, try the breakfast burritos or chicken fried steak and eggs.
“A lot of entertainers like to come in,” said Bagley, citing Conway Twitty, Freddy Fender, Johnny Cash and Alan Jackson. “They’re all big steak eaters.”
The Wagon Wheel’s meals are served with your choice of French fries, potato salad or cole slaw. “Everything is made fresh daily,” said Bagley. “There’s no frozen stuff here.”