Some of my photos are now for sale at ImageKind.

Nature Index
(My hiking and camping adventures in Northern California.)

Culture Index
(NorCal cities, highways, restaurants, museums, architecture, historic attractions, vintage neon signs, roadside attractions, etc.)

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Wine Country Traveler: Fremont Diner


 Babe's Burgers and Franks, it was called when I first noticed this place. But it never did the kind of business or received the widespread recognition then as it does now as the Fremont Diner. And the crowds just seem to keep getting bigger.

20110327 Mac & Cheese Skillet
Mac and Cheese

I photographed the old drive-in building not long after Babe's had closed and it was sitting vacant. When we moved to the area, I noticed it had reopened as the Fremont Diner, and made a mental note that I ought to stop there sometime. Then my mother asked me about some wine country eateries she had read about in Sunset Magazine that were supposedly where the locals eat, and Fremont Diner was one of them. That old drive-in in Sunset?

20081019 Babe's Burgers & Franks
Babe's Burgers and Franks

 Once we first gave it a try, we were hooked. My wife and I go there frequently and have witnessed their increasing popularity expansion. They make use of a large outdoor area, covered in a big plastic tent in winter, to accommodate more guests. It's no longer order at the counter and seat yourself, but full table service. And just recently they started serving dinner 4 nights per week (Thursday-Sunday).

Long before it was Babe's Burgers and Franks, although I don't yet know exactly how long, this joint was Dave's Drive-In. There's an old sign in a private area in the back for Dave's that I caught glimpse of. When asked about it, the proprietor, Chad Harris, told me that Dave's widow still lives next door to the place, and rents out the restaurant and the adjoining 34 acres of land to him.


In addition to the old Dave's Drive-In sign, there's a spectacular old Broadway Hardware neon sign mounted on a shed in back of the restaurant, presumably from Sonoma (Highway 12 enters Sonoma on Broadway), and assorted other vintage and quirky pieces throughout the building and property, contributing to the folksy character of the place. The most prominent of these is the old truck always parked in front, which recently got a touch up faux paint job.

20111029 At the Fremont Diner
Ain't That America--this photo for sale at ImageKind and SmugMug.

But it's definitely the food that makes this place such a draw. You can get burgers, fries, and shakes at the diner, but the main appeal is the Southern comfort food, with a little bit of California thrown in now in then, like huevos rancheros to go with chicken fried steak and biscuits and gravy. Not everything is fantastic--the fried chicken "so spicy it will set a cheatin' man straight" did not bring any heat at all, and I find the mac and cheese too salty. But enough of it really is fantastic. I particularly relish the ham biscuit and the collard greens.

Catfish and Hush Puppies

Friday, February 8, 2013

Two Old Motels on an Abandoned Alignment of Route 66

(This is not about NorCal. But I thought the story was too good to be left untold.)

[This photo can be purchased on ImageKind or SmugMug.]

After a decade of exploring old highway routes in California, for the first time I got to drive the famous highway of song and television, Route 66, this last September while I was in Missouri on my wife Elizabeth's business trip. The highlight of this was stumbling onto Vernelle's Motel and John's Modern Cabins. This little episode was everything I could have hoped for as an old highway historian and vintage neon sign photographer.

We had a day of travel from Branson to St. Louis with our baby in a rental Rav-4. I knew that on I-44 between Springfield and St. Louis we would be roughly following long-decommissioned Route 66, and hoped we might a couple of times be able to get off the freeway and take the business route (usually what was the main highway route through a place before being bypassed by the freeway) through some towns and  make a quick stop or two for me to take photos.

But we started out seeing far more of old 66 than I expected, partly because I downloaded a Route 66 iPhone app that made it easy to follow the old alignment, even between towns, but mostly because Elizabeth was as enthusiastic about traveling down Route 66 as I was, rather than just tolerating it for my sake.

Even though we were both having a lot of fun, we soon realized we had to curtail the historical interest portion of our journey. It was just taking more time than we had to spare. The baby wasn't going to stay asleep forever, and we didn't want her to spend too much of her awake time confined to her car seat.

We made one last turn off of I-44 to see a little of old Route 66 with the baby already awake at exit 176 for Sugar Tree Road. But rather than continue to follow the old Route 66 alignment on back roads until the next I-44 junction, as we had been doing, I suggested we instead backtrack a short distance to see two motels listed on the iPhone app, and then just get back on the freeway and skip altogether the next long portion of 66 (which didn't have any point of interest markers on the map). One reason for my suggestion was that one of the motels was called John's Modern, and with "modern" in the name, I could well imagine an exciting and extremely photogenic neon sign standing before the old motel.


We spotted the sign for the other motel, Vernelle's, not along the road we were driving, as expected, but, it looked to me, like across a large swathe of grass where there had once been a freeway. That turned out be be exactly the case--Route 66 had been expanded from its original two lanes to four lanes, whether it was freeway or expressway (divided highway, but without the exit and entrance ramps of a freeway), there in 1957 and the property line for Vernelle's Motel had been moved. Interstate 44 replaced the Route 66 designation in 1967 and by then the road was definitely a freeway, but I-44 was later moved to a straighter alignment that bypassed the old route and its curves entirely after 2000. Most of the old Route 66/I-44 pavement was removed, although I did spot a section of it to the east when we made our way back to current I-44. You can see all of this on the map below, only the portion Google is labeling "Historic U.S. 66" is the new freeway, and not the bypassed historic U.S. 66.

View Larger Map

We pulled up to the motel so I could quickly pop out and photograph the sign, only to find one of the friendly owners sitting outside, Brenda.She brought out her husband Ed to talk with us, and it turned into a more leisurely visit.

Ed's mother was the Vernelle, from whom the motel got its name. Hearing of my interest in Route 66, Ed went inside and got an extra copy of Route 66 Advertiser from 2007 with an article on the motel in it to give me. Brenda soon found occasion to make a quick trip inside to get something to show me as well--a Route 66 purse that had a similar print to the Route 66 shirt I was wearing, purchased in Branson the day before.

Ed told us some of the history of the place, but I don't recall the details. According to this site, however, the original 1930s business was Gasser Tourist Court, and it only became Vernelle's when Ed's family acquired it in the 1950s. Its survival to this day seems quite improbable, as obscurely situated as it is now. Highway planners seem to have really had it in for Vernelle's over the years.

Before we left, Brenda told us of a restaurant on the road ahead with good home-style food, and Ed told us we should check out John's Modern Cabins, and explained how to get there. We were right next to it, as it turns out--in easy walking distance. But we couldn't just drive down the old frontage road, as it no longer goes though. Instead, we had to go back across the former freeway, take Arlington Outer Road over, recross the vanished freeway, and arrive on the old frontage road just yards way from where we had left it.

John's Modern Cabins--modern? I don't know, maybe they had electricity, and that made them modern. What was left of them certainly seemed rustic enough, even for the 1950s.

There wasn't much left of them, I'm afraid, but they made quite a spectacular ruin.  There are many photos online by other visitors to the site over the 40+ years since the buildings have been abandoned, and they appear to have held up quite well until recently. Photos from just a handful of years ago show most of the buildings standing with intact roofs, but we didn't see any that way.
[This photo can be purchased on ImageKind or SmugMug.]

What surprised me was that after 40 years I saw no evidence of graffiti, or fires, or wanton destruction. I know many people have visited the place from all of those photos online, and they have left some clear signs of being there--a series of Burma Shave-style signs telling visitors to photograph the soon-to-be-gone ruins, and a Route 66 sign stenciled onto the road. But the vast majority of visitors seem to have been respectful and appreciative of this fading bit of roadside history. I'm quite thankful for that.


The motel itself is older than the "John's Modern Cabins" neon sign, having been founded as Bill and Bess's Place in 1931, according to Wikipedia. John Dausch was the John of John's Modern Cabins, which is what the tourist court was renamed when he bought it in 1951. I wonder what he would make of the Wikipedia article on his old stomping ground. "Sunday John," Ed told us (and Wikipedia confirms), they used to call him, because of his willingness to sell beer on that day, which was prohibited in Phelps County.

But a story that didn't make Wikipedia is when John, in his declining years, stopped by Vernelle's Motel in his pick-up truck and told Ed he was going into town and asked if Ed would like him to pick up anything. Ed said he looked inside the truck and saw that John had on polka dot boxer shorts, but no pants. Upon having this pointed out to him, John commented that it was a darn good thing he had stopped by to see Ed before going into town.

I imagine it's a true story. Although if I found myself sitting about an 80-year old motel on a tiny fragment of remaining highway completely bypassed by all through traffic, I might just spin a yarn or two to tell the rare visitor who wandered in.

See some of my other Route 66 photo here.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Dream House That Got Away


"If only . . . ." There are at least a dozen sentences beginning with that phrase that my wife and I find ourselves muttering morosely these days in relation to our first ever bid on a house. It was ours! It  should be ours! It was perfect for us, and we were perfect for it! But it will never be ours, and finding something else even close to it is a decidedly remote possibility.

(Walking up the front path.)

We had only been house shopping for four days and had already seen a house that was almost exactly what we were looking for--except for the location--when our real estate agent showed us this 1920 Craftsman house. We weren't looking for a house like this, but only because this house was so much more than we could have imagined we could find in our budget!

(Garden sheds on the property.)

On a quiet street, just under 1/2 mile from the Oxbow Public Market (my favorite thing about Napa), .7 miles from First and Main Street downtown, and two blocks from one of the best schools in town and its playgrounds, this house sits on a double lot. If you look closely, you can see that the lot is elaborately landscaped, but at first glance it just appears overgrown.  The old two-car garage is hard to miss, but you have to hunt around to find all the structures--the two picturesque sheds, an artist's studio (with electricity), and a small playhouse.

(From the porch.)

On our first visit, we strolled up the front sidewalk, climbed the stairs to a small, but serviceable, porch, and went in the door to be blown away. Beautiful, original woodwork everywhere and a massive built-in so typical of Craftsman houses, all of it looking like the day it was first finished. The rest of the house didn't live up to the front room, but it was plenty good enough.


(The exciting front room!)

The kitchen was barely existent: a very small counter with cabinetry underneath (no upper cabinets, no more counter space), an odd hutch built to enclose the refrigerator, and a stove. But there was plenty of space to put in a proper kitchen and dining area, and a great piece to build it around-- a restored ca. 1950 Wedegwood stove. In the days after our visit my wife spent a good amount of time shopping for retro-styled refrigerators that would have complemented that stove.

(The kitchen.)

Behind the kitchen was another very small kitchen--perhaps the original 1920 kitchen. All that was missing was the old wood-burning stove, and we found two of those later in the basement, one of which had likely originally been in that kitchen, and which we would have restored to its proper place (for show only).

(The old kitchen.)

Next to the old kitchen was the bathroom. Like the kitchen it was incomplete, with no sink. But like the kitchen it had something great to build around, a huge, cast-iron, claw-foot tub (like my wife has always wanted).

(The bathroom.)

Next up, we saw the basement.  It was a full basement, so there was plenty of room, albeit not much headroom.  Its other major drawback was that it could only be accessed via an outside door. In this large basement there was a modern bathroom with plenty of storage (and yes, even a sink) and a partially finished area that would have become our guest bedroom. There were also stored lots of odds and ends from the house's 93-year history, including the aforementioned wood-burning stoves, one of which was hooked up to the chimney for heat downstairs.

Did I mention there was no central heating?

(Downstairs entry and heating system.)

Yes, we would have had to do considerable work to the house: add central heating, put in a kitchen, and redo the upstairs bathroom, and add a stairway down to the basement so that area could be better utilized and integrated. But we didn't want to change the character of the house or update things that were actually working fine--no stainless steel appliances, granite counter tops, or master bedroom suites for us. Heck, I was even fine with having to bend down to walk through the basement. And the asking price for the house was well within our range.

(A surprise bathroom downstairs!)

But between the price of the house and the price of the renovations, it would have cost us all that we had decided was our maximum house budget. The result, however, would have been a house worth much more than that what we would have spent--a showcase historic home on a huge lot right in the heart of town! A house to show off to guests and the community, and a jewel to pass on to our daughter.

(The original stove?)

We thought the property was definitely worth what the seller was asking, but given that we were going to put everything we had to spend into it and that you never can be sure exactly how much those renovation will add up to, we wanted to save on the purchase price if we could, so when our agent suggest we offer $25k less than the asking price, we followed the advice. The seller came back with an offer $2k less than the original asking price. It was our move.

(Master bedroom.)

I was so excited about the property that I started researching its history. Presumably the first owner of the house was the immigrant living there in 1925, Domenico Abate. Born in Italy in 1883, he was a wholesaler at Napa Milling and Wholesale Co. and lived in the house up until his death in 1969. His son George went on to be come the Napa County Assessor, while his daughter Anne Mary Abate owned the house until 1980--meaning the house spent its first 60 years all in one Italian immigrant's family. I was looking forward to discovering forgotten items from the house's long history scattered about the property over the years.


But back to the negotiations. We agreed on Friday night to accept the counter-offer, but instead of sending off the message to our agent, we decided to sleep on it and view the house again in the morning before letting him know our response. We were thinking of the place as pretty much ours at this point. It was just a matter of whether we wanted to haggle over a couple of thousand dollars--but then we needed every penny for the renovations. And ultimately we decided to change our offer to $7k less than the original asking price, rather than accept the counter offer for $5k more.

(The artist's studio.)

We didn't know it, because the listing agent, going against form, did not tell us that another bid had been received by that point. Had we known this vital bit of information, we would have accepted the counter offer and I'd be out getting better photos of our new house right now instead of writing about our bitter failure.

Our offer was rejected and the new one--full price, cash, no contingencies (likely an investor who will look to flip the house)--was accepted.

Monday, January 14, 2013

U.S. Route 40: An Aging Eatery for Meat Lovers in Fairfield


Wandering the historic downtown of Fairfield, documenting the old Highway 40 alignment (and before that, Lincoln Highway) one afternoon, I spotted a newspaper article in a window about restaurant and its long history as a popular local eatery, Joe's Buffet.

My wife has accused me of only liking places because they're old, indiscriminately lumping those of quality with those that just happen to have hung around. It is true that having a long history is enough to pique my interest. I had to try Joe's at least once, to both share and document this local experience that multiple generations have shared. And the fact that it has survived this long--since 1949, as I discovered later--should indicate that they are doing something better than most restaurants.

But being old isn't enough to make me like a place, and Joe's is lacking that which I enjoy about going out for a sandwich, rather than just making myself one at home. It's extremely similar to Bud's Buffet in Sacramento, a restaurant I tried after an old girlfriend read rave reviews on Yelp about it. Both offer large portions and no frills to the carnivores that line up daily to be served cafeteria style.

It has been a few years, but I don't recall there being any positive ambiance in the dining area at Bud's--the cheap and strictly functional tables and chairs laid out in a big room are what you might expect FEMA to provide when serving up meals to the victims of natural disasters. Joe's has gone a bit further, with brightly painted green and yellow walls, and a row of photographs of famous entertainers along one wall. Plus, giant Budweiser and Bud Light helmets in the window (not that I consider that a plus). But it's pretty sparse, functional, and depressing, despite the bright colors. No old photos of Fairfield, or the 64-year history of the restaurant. Nothing at all that looks like it was there previous to 1980.

As for the customers . . . they came all decked out in their sweatpants and shorts on a cold winter day, and some continued the fitness regimen post-meat consumption by lighting up cigarettes outside. My neighbors treated me to a delightful conversation about a pregnant woman living with her ex-boyfriend's parents, and an insightful analysis of how a couple of old classmates of theirs never amounted to anything because they had had everything handed to them.


But what about the food? Generous portions, to be sure. My small side of coleslaw was twice the size I expected. They roast their meats each day and carve them when you order. My roast beef sandwich was nice and juicy, although I prefer my roast beef rare, rather than well done. The soft and tasteless white roll it was served on didn't help my opinion of the place any.

I'm glad that I visited it once, but that will probably be it for me.