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Achy-Breaky Bakersfield : Along with Country Music, It’s Got Funky Thrift Shops, Great Basque Food and Get-Down Prices

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<i> Gold writes the Counter Intelligence restaurant features that appear Thursdays in Food</i>

In the last year, I have spent what my friends consider an eccentric amount of time in downtown Bakersfield, which I have grown to prefer over more serious destinations such as San Francisco or Seattle. I make the drive north about one weekend a month; returning with car-trunkfuls of scarves and rusty eggbeaters, a disused chocolate mold, ancient streamlined toasters that cleave the air like ships.

Sometimes the rest of California seems like little more than a squeaky-clean L.A. suburb. Bakersfield is, arguably, the nearest city that is demonstrably Somewhere Else. There is a genuine tourist attraction, the Kern County Museum (nee Pioneer Village)--a compound that preserves old Bakersfield structures in sort of an officially curated version of the ghost towns you find on the dusty slopes of the Sierra. There is also a famous golf course, and drag-boat racing at Ming Lake, and a full-fledged Dodgers farm team, and a popular spot up the river where you can inner-tube down the Kern. And Bakersfield is cheap--the best dinner in town is $15 a person, including wine; a clean, decent motel room costs about $30.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. July 12, 1992 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 12, 1992 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 2 Column 4 Travel Desk 2 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Bakersfield--Due to an editing error, a map accompanying last week’s story on Bakersfield incorrectly identified Interstate 5 and Highway 204 as the same route. In addition, the wrong address was given for Benji’s French Basque Restaurant. It is located at 4001 Rosedale Highway.

But Bakersfield is no Carmel. In other towns, one sightsees; in Bakersfield, one tends to drink too much after dinner and watch “I Love Lucy” reruns flicker blue into the motel-room dawn.

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When I was young, my parents used to ask one another if they would consider moving to Bakersfield to take a job that paid $50,000, and then collapse into laughter. They considered the place a haven for oil-field roughnecks and post-Dustbowl Okie migrants, Basque cowboys and country-music fans. A lot of people got whatever idea they have about Bakersfield from Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” in which the Joad family pretty much has a bad time passing through town. Twenty-five years ago, the Depression was still too fresh to inspire anything approximating nostalgia.

Bakersfield isn’t for everybody, and that’s all right with me, though even getting there can be poetry enough. There may be nothing on a California highway quite so exhilarating as that moment when, after an hour of snaking through the Tehachapis from Los Angeles, one eye on the sputtering red light of the dashboard temperature gauge, you feel the steep slope of the Grapevine run into nothing and the Central Valley horizon flattens out into sunbaked infinity. Going about 80, you pass the first “Speed Limit 65” of the Central Valley, the bold, stark curve of the Caltrans-lettered “6” as powerfully nostalgic as the jut of a 1962 Impala grill, and you bear left toward California 99 as it splits off the 5--which shoots you through Arvin and Pumpkin Center into town in about 20 minutes. It takes 30 minutes if you veer off the 99 onto Union Avenue, the old 99, which takes you down a rustic bowery, past a neon riot of motels and greasy spoons, under the old Bakersfield sign that arcs across the highway from the long-shuttered Bakersfield Inn. About now, you should flick your car radio to KUZZ-AM, which is the grooviest honky-tonk radio station in the West.

Some people stop in Bakersfield for a burger and a tank of gas on the way out to Visalia. Others go on purpose, to hear the country music, which can be among the best in the world, or to throw back a bourbon-and-water in one of its many bars. Antique collectors like to rummage through the city’s junk stores, finding plaster cats, rusted Lucky Strike marquees and complete sets of “Vaseline-glass” dishes that are nearly as expensive as they would be on Melrose but seem fantastically attractive when set off by clean, desert light and storekeepers who accept American Express.

While Bakersfield’s population has exploded by more than half in the last decade, the growth has been concentrated on the outskirts of town, near the new shopping malls, and much of the central area--abandoned by its department stores and savings and loans--was little affected by the redevelopment boom of the ‘80s.

Wander west down 19th Street from Chester toward the heart of the old downtown and see something like 1940s America: Coke-bottle-green Vest’s Drugstore still looks as it did when Truman was President; the old Nile and Fox theaters still look like grand small-town movie palaces (though the Fox has been dark for some time, there is talk that it will eventually become the home of the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra); people walk and smile and shop.

If you’re fond of thrift shops, 19th Street is practically lined with them, and the cool Mamie Eisenhower suits and Vernonware pottery that long ago disappeared from big-city thrift shops can sometimes be found here for a couple of dollars.

Substantially dearer is Bakersfield’s most famous antique store, the Great American Antique Mall--a consignment place in a cavernous old building across the street from the attractive Bakersfield Museum of Art (check out the current show of California landscapes). But it has a nonpariel selection of Poppytrail dishes and stuffed animal heads and other junk you can’t live without, a cacophonous pile-up of Bakersfield’s post-Grapes-of-Wrath past. This isn’t where you’re going to scoop up a Hepplewhite commode, but it is pretty easy to push your Visa card up to its limit . . . if only on cool orange-crate labels and wood-handled potato mashers. It’s probably my favorite all-purpose vintage store in California, differing from the Kern County Museum in that all the furnishings are for sale.

The alley behind 19th Street is lined with shops and bars. On the Alley Cat’s superb neon sign, a feline tail twitches nonstop; inside, the Alley Cat is a glittery painting of the alley and a duplicate of the spectacular Hirschfield mural that decorates Hollywood’s Frolic Room bar, also a lot of college guys with mustaches getting loud on peppermint schnapps.

H Street, south of downtown, is thick with mom ‘n’ pop “antique” stores in old bungalows. You can find Depression glass and Art Deco kitchen clocks and such, often at quite reasonable prices, and sometimes a cool western-look desk or two. Sometimes it seems as if half of Bakersfield survives by selling off bits of its heritage to the other half.

At the old Padre Hotel, a Bakersfield landmark near the Greyhound station, a hotel lobby that director Edward Dmytryk might have filmed seems alive with the damp of picturesque decay. Longtime Padre owner Milton Miller, a famous Bakersfield eccentric, renamed it the Alamo Tombstone and posted an old Army rocket on the roof when he thought the building, now an office building, was threatened by downtown redevelopment. (So far, it isn’t.)

“They wouldn’t tear down a building with a U.S. rocket on the roof,” Miller tells visitors to the Padre’s Town Casino bar, “or a building named after a national shrine.”

Inside the hotel’s ornate cocktail lounge, now basically a cheerful piano bar, you can have a cold one under where B-girls used to sway on a velvet-roped swing, and visit the deserted balcony where more B-girls once bathed in champagne. (Don’t forget to ask the waitress for a postcard.)

Down around the train station lies one of Bakersfield’s oldest neighborhoods, dotted with pool halls and rooming houses originally built for itinerant Basque shepherds fresh from the Old Country, and cantinas for the Mexican farm workers who’ve always passed through. The Edward Hopper-esque Arizona Cafe is an old place that serves extremely old-fashioned Mexican food, big plates of chile verde and albondigas . The Pyrenees Cafe, my favorite Bakersfield bar, is a cool, fragrant dark-wood Basque place decorated with taxidermy and neon, the kind of joint where nobody would dream of going home on a Saturday afternoon until the end of the boxing match on the corner TV. The Pyrenees is the place to try a Picon Punch, a bittersweet cocktail made with brandy, soda, grenadine and a bitter Basque liqueur. You may think Picon Punch is a tourist affectation until you see a burly farmer thrust his gut toward a barkeep and snarl, “Gimme Pi- cahhhn .” A Picon goes down smoothly but gnaws at your brain for hours, and costs little more than a beer.

There is a ramshackle beer bar, the Kern River Inn, in Bakersfield’s industrial suburb of Oildale, a mile or so up Chester from downtown and just over the river from which it takes its name. On weekends, a four-piece band scrubs at Marty Robbins songs. Couples, most a couple of generations senior to the MTV generation, dance as if Bob Wills himself were on the bandstand-- recklessly and well. Rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t get much wilder than this.

The unit of exchange at the Kern River is the $3 pitcher, and if three friends sit at the bar, gazing blankly at the restroom doors, waiting to see if a newcomer will hesitate between “Pointers” and “Setters,” there are three pitchers in front of them.

“I can tell you’re from the city,” somebody says to you. “I don’t get down there much anymore.” You chat for five more minutes before you realize the city he’s referring to is not Los Angeles but Bakersfield, all of a two-minute drive away.

In Oildale there is also Trout’s, which is a perfect art-director’s dream of a honky-tonk, guarded by a spectacular neon trout, attached to a fine poolroom and presided over by the best house band in town, hard-core country from the area that produced Merle Haggard, Rose Maddox and Buck Owens. (The offices for Owens’ vast music/real estate empire are in a converted theater just up the street. Buck Owens is to Bakersfield approximately what Paul McCartney is to Liverpool.)

Trout’s has a minor reputation as a bucket-of-blood--it has always attracted both two-stepping Bakersfield gentry and roughnecks from the nearby oil fields--but I’ve never seen an actual fight, the admission is free and you might win a round of drinks on the house. Country stars passing through Bakersfield will often sit in for a set at Trout’s. And one of the oddest country music customs around may be witnessed at Trout’s--when the band takes a break, a disco beat pounds and the dance floor fills . . . with people line-dancing to “Do the Bartman,” as perfectly in sync as they would be in a Busby Berkeley cowboy chorus line.

What you eat in Bakersfield is Basque food, prepared by descendants of the Basque shepherds and businessmen who settled the area, and as ubiquitous here as Chinese food in L.A.'s Chinatown. (The Basque name Etcheverry is as common in Bakersfield as Smith.) Some of the restaurants have been in the same family for half a century. Some of the better places are Wool Growers, the Pyrenees Cafe and Benji’s, the latter of which serves the nicest pickled beef tongue I’ve ever tasted.

Worth a two-hour drive all by itself is the Noriega Hotel, which is by popular consensus the best Basque place in town. Years ago, Noriega’s was mostly a boarding house, the kind of place where the Basque shepherds of the Central Valley might stay when they were in town. Now the Noriega is best known for its Basque-American family-style meals, garlicky affairs served at long communal tables where you sit side-by-side with ranchers and schoolteachers, as well as with a good cross-section of the local Basque community. Dinner is at 7 p.m. sharp, and if you haven’t made a reservation, you may be sent to eat at Wool Growers down the street.

At the Noriega you serve yourself from communal platters brought to the table, and wash everything down with cold, red wine. First there are tureens of vegetable soup, which you enrich to taste with spicy Basque salsa and a dose of boiled pinto beans. You are passed a platter of thinly sliced pickled beef tongue--cool, rich and slick with garlic--and a big bowl of very fresh lettuce dressed with a simple garlic vinaigrette, and possibly a bowl of cottage cheese flavored with garlic and chopped herbs. (The meal thus far, plus or minus a thing or two, is called the “setup.” At some of the other Basque restaurants, principally Benji’s and Wool Growers, you can order the setup alone.)

And then comes the entree, maybe lamb stew or braised oxtails; after that an enormous plate of spaghetti; after that a platter of ribs or fried chicken and the best French fries in the world; then--finally--slabs of blue cheese and bowls of delicious homemade flan.

It may be only 8:30 p.m. when you get finished eating here, but it’s definitely time to head back to the motel.

GUIDEBOOK: Bouncing Around Bakersfield

Getting there: Bakersfield is about 100 miles north of Los Angeles, about a two-hour drive up Interstate 5, then north on California 99.

Where to stay: Bakersfield Lodge, 1219 S. Union Ave., Bakersfield, (805) 327-7901. Basic but clean old-style motel, right on the old highway next to the fairgrounds. Double room, $32-$36.

Red Lion Hotel, 3100 Camino Del Rio Court, Bakersfield, (805) 323-7111. The class place in Bakersfield, and sometimes decent C&W; music in the cocktail lounge. Double rooms, $99-$119.

Sheraton Valley Inn, 5101 California Ave., (805) 325-9700. Dependable mid-level semi-luxury. Double rooms, $80-$120.

Where to eat: Arizona Cafe, 809 Baker St., (805) 324-3866. A vast, old place, with a beautifully tiled bar. Not gourmet, but pretty good.

Benji’s French Basque Restaurant, 515 Union Ave., Bakersfield, (805) 328-0400. Excellent Basque food, including great cabbage soup and the spiciest salsa in town.

MacDee’s Tam O’ Shanter Inn, 3245 Alta Vista Drive, Bakersfield, (805) 324-6774. Bakersfield’s leading velvet-rope restaurant, the kind of place where a Bakersfield native from a good family can walk in at lunchtime and know everybody in the room. Good steaks, chops, shrimp cocktails.

Noriega Hotel, 525 Sumner St., Bakersfield, (805) 322-8419. The oldest. The best. Reservations essential. Dinner--7 p.m. sharp only--$15 per person, wine included; lunch, noon, $8.

Pyrenees Cafe, 601 Sumner St., Bakersfield, (805) 323-0053. Conventional wisdom has it that Noriega’s is the place to eat, and the Pyrenees is the place to drink.

Wool Growers Restaurant, 620 East 19th St., Bakersfield, (805) 327-9584. Family-style Basque restaurant, full to bursting on weekends. The bartenders make a mean Picon Punch.

Where to hear music: Trout’s, 805 N. Chester Ave., Oildale, (805) 399-6700. Hard-core country music at its best. Not fancy, but the beer is cold and the dancing is hot, and admission is always free.

Kern River Inn, 100 N. Chester, Oildale, (805) 399-9807. “Basic” is too generous a word for the ambience of this beer bar, but if your thing runs to tiny sweatboxes, you just might have a very good time here.

Roxanne’s, 3501 California Ave., Bakersfield, (805) 323-5919. More or less a country-music disco, but a swell country-music disco, with local deejays from Bakersfield’s KUZZ-AM and a crowd that knows all the latest line dances. Request “Achy-Breaky Heart” at your own risk.

Where to shop: Great American Antique Mall, 625 19th St., Bakersfield, (805) 322-1776. Golden Era, 531 H St., Bakersfield, (805) 323-3243. Grandma’s Trunk, 1115 H St., Bakersfield, (805) 323-2730. Antique Loft, H Street at Brundage Lane, Bakersfield, (805) 325-2401.

Other attractions: Kern County Museum, 3801 Chester Ave., (805) 324-4052; Bakersfield Museum of Art, 1930 R St., (805) 323-7219.

For more information: Contact the Greater Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce, 1033 Truxtun Ave., P.O. Box 1947, Bakersfield 93303, (805) 327-4421.


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