An Ode to the Roadside Diner

One thing must be assumed when stopping into a roadside diner for a meal. It’s usually about one of two things — the uniquely American experience, or the convenience. With rare exception, you are not likely in for great dining.

So it was on a Sunday early afternoon on one of America’s most beautiful highways — U.S. 395, which winds from the high Joshua Tree-dotted Mojave desert along the eastern Sierras, past the tallest mountain in the contiguous 48, miscellaneous charming frontier towns, dazzling Mono Lake, the stunning ghost town of Bodie, to Nevada and the eastern flank of Lake Tahoe and on to Oregon. We had just emerged from a long 20-mph southbound slog through blizzard-like whiteout conditions, descending toward home from a ski vacation in Mammoth, and were starved.

Our first attempt at a roadside diner meal happened in the town of Lone Pine, where there are actually quite a few pines. We stopped at Bonanza Restaurant, lured by the promise of “Mexican and American food”. The lone waitress sat us in the dark “back room” — there were literally no lights on; what little illumination we had came from the ambient daylight spilling in from the front. Eventually some lights were turned on, and lone waitress brought us menus. Between two of the menus was inadvertently tucked a grimy potholder from the kitchen. We reviewed the menu, which was priced like a beachfront restaurant in Waikiki, and watched lone waitress frantically attempt to service the several other large parties that had arrived before us. And that was enough for us.

Immy and Flynn await their meals at the Ranch House Café

A little further up the road, amidst shrubby horse and cow pastures in the blink-and-you-miss-it town of Olancha, was a roadside diner — the Ranch House Café — which I had noticed for years but never had a reason to stop at. Now, hunger and the 75-miles-until-the-next-town were all the reason needed.

The Ranch House Café was everything Bonanza was not — bright, busy and well-staffed. A stout and cheerful hostess gave us the obligatory “Be right with you, honey,” (just like in the movies), and we admired the taxidermied bear, Canada geese, and moose and deer heads looming down at us from above. There were cowboy hats on a coat rack, and a grizzled guy eating at the bar who’s name could’ve only been Gus.

Leslie and Willa with her cheesy potato soup

The menu was reasonable and interesting. Daughter Imogen pitched a small fit at the lack of a crunchy taco (which she’d seen on the menu at Bonanza), but otherwise everyone was happy with the food options.

There were burgers and meatloaf sandwiches; there was fried chicken and pork chops. Leslie and Imogen decided to split the fish & chips dinner with soup and cornbread. Flynn got the chicken fingers and fries from the kids menu, while I opted for the fried shrimp. Willa, who was fighting a fever, only wanted a side of mashed potatoes and gravy.

Their “specialty”, it seemed, was Indian fry bread with powdered sugar. We ordered that, too.

Indian fry bread with local honey

A couple Mojave Red beers from the nearby Indian Wells Brewing Company, and we were set.

The waitress forgot the corn bread and the fry bread. (I would remind her before we left.) I poured gravy over my fries for an impromptu Sierra poutine. I heard the cheesy potato soup was good.

There used to be an adage — don’t order sushi if you’re more than a day’s drive from an ocean. With the global same-day transport of seafood, you can get pretty decent fish dishes just about anywhere. But something about fish & chips at a high desert roadside diner seemed off note. And the girls were disappointed with their lunch. My shrimp, probably from a Costco box, were tasty.

The view across the highway

Our friend with whom we had been skiing suddenly entered, looking for a bathroom. More people came and went, greeting each other by name and exchanging pleasantries — proving the unlikely existence of a local Olanchese coterie.

A rather dramatic windstorm greeted us as we left the diner, our corn bread and fry bread to go, and headed back toward the more familiar surroundings of home. The fry bread would turn out to be a superb breakfast the next day, spread with freshly churned butter and drizzled with Mojave honey.

At around $50, including two beers, the restaurant was a good deal. Worth it more for a truly authentic version of the American roadside diner experience than for the food. Which might be a truism for most American roadside diners.