I once went on a motorcycle trip planned by a veteran rider who seemingly knew every wonderful riding road in the Southwest--and every '50s retro diner.
We would spend incredible mornings on spectacularly scenic byways, stopping at a different diner--although each seemed to have bobby-socked waitresses, Formica counters and "Chapel of Love" on the jukebox--every day at lunchtime.
I hope one day to do another tour with this terrific guy. I also hope never again to step through the door of one of those cutesy diners, where style (so to speak) far exceeds substance.
Luckily, there are a number of distinctly individual roadside eateries--none of them featuring high-concept design or membership in a national chain--along great riding routes in Southern California. Some, including those listed below, attract a motorcycle crowd, especially on weekend afternoons. The big sport at these places is bike gazing, and the overwhelmingly most-oft-heard question is "So, how do you like the [fill in name of bike]?"
It's not the pithiest of conversation starters, but enjoyable conversations often ensue, and sometimes you make a new friend.
As for the cuisine, it ranges from scary to scrumptious, depending on the place.
And because their hours and days of operation may vary with season, it's always a good idea to call ahead. Here's my guide to seven Southern California roadside motorcycle hangouts:
Lookout Roadhouse. 32107 Ortega Highway, Lake Elsinore, (909) 678-9010.
My favorite, because it has everything I crave in a hangout: great food, friendly atmosphere, beautiful setting, lots of bikes to ogle and nearby twisting riding roads.
The Lookout, a wooden structure built in 1945 along Ortega Highway in Orange County, juts out from a cliff that overlooks Lake Elsinore. I like to sit out on the patio, eat a country breakfast and watch the fog roll off the lake.
To be fair, the guy who introduced me to this place is the same one who led the diner tour. The Lookout is so splendid, I can almost forgive him for all the times I had to listen to "Leader of the Pack."
Mother's Kitchen. 33120 Canfield Road, Palomar Mountain, (760) 742-4233.
Near the top of Palomar Mountain, which features some of the most thrilling and challenging twisty roads in this part of the country, sits this modest restaurant nestled in a verdant wood near a state park.
The fare here is vegetarian and simple but nicely done. Have your meal out on the back patio and watch for the brightly colored Steller's jays that fly amid the tall trees.
Just a few miles up the road is Palomar Observatory, a stunning, awe-inspiring domed structure that is open daily to visitors.
Newcomb's Ranch. Angeles National Forest (about 20 miles east of the 210 Freeway exit in La Canada Flintridge), (626) 440-1001.
One of the best-known of all Southern California motorcycle stops, this restaurant on the Angeles Crest Highway is sportbike heaven. On any Sunday afternoon in good weather (it snows in the winter), you'll see dozens of motorcycles parked in front.
Look for people standing in small packs in the parking lot--probably admiring one of the newest, hottest bikes around. Motorcycles rarely seen elsewhere on public roads seem to show up with regularity at Newcomb's. Earlier this month, I spotted an Aprilia RSV mille, of which there are only a handful in North America.
The bike-gazing and conversation at Newcomb's is spectacular; the food is only average. But you'll be dining in the presence of some of the best and best-known sportbike riders in the area.
Mile High Cafe. 20033 Big Pines Highway, Valyremo, (805) 261-3154.
Though not nearly as well-known as Newcomb's, this homey restaurant, also in the San Gabriel Mountains, serves up a good, hearty breakfast I always look forward to when on a morning Angeles Crest ride. (The restaurant is on Big Pines Highway, a short and enjoyable ride off the Crest.)
The decor is rustic, the service friendly, and though the coffee is not quite up to the standards of the food, it is plentiful and served with a smile.
You'll see only a fraction of the number of motorcycles out front as at Newcomb's, but there is also less of a one-upmanship spirit here, and that makes it all the more congenial.
Rock Store. 30354 Mulholland Highway, Cornell, (818) 889-1311.
Without a doubt, this is the most famous motorcycle hangout in Southern California, in part because it attracts celebrity riders, including frequent visitor Jay Leno. But it gets its legitimacy from its location: Great riding is nearby, no matter what type of street motorcyclist you are.
Mulholland Highway, along which the restaurant is located, is a favorite of cruiser riders, while nearby Malibu Canyon is popular with the sportbike crowd. In fact, the Rock Store is rare among motorcycle hangouts in that it attracts both cruiser and sportbike riders in just about equal numbers.
If you're looking for a used bike or gear, you'll find ads pinned to the trunk of a large tree in the courtyard.
And the food? Let's just say that the scene is what makes the Rock Store special.
Pine Mountain Inn. California 33 (between Wheeler Springs and Lockwood Valley Road, about 40 minutes north of Ojai); no telephone.
Also known as Wolf's. Also known as perhaps the weirdest place I've ever dined.
Part shack, part zoo (the animals on the premises include an emu and a wild boar named Porkchops), part nightclub, this eatery owes its popularity to the fact that it's the only rest stop on a long stretch of California 33 above Ojai.
That stretch of highway is a favorite for motorcyclists, many of whom seem to have bought into the tradition of signing dollars and pinning them to the ceiling or walls of Wolf's when they visit.
If you think you hear gunshots while enjoying your repast at Wolf's, you're not dreaming. Out back, near where Porkchops sleeps, is a shooting range.
Cold Spring Tavern. 5995 Stagecoach Road, Santa Barbara, (805) 967-0066.
One of the specials at this restaurant on a recent afternoon was spinach and lime ravioli with an artichoke and sun-dried-tomato cream sauce. There also was grilled vegetable quiche.
Obviously, this is not your typical motorcycle hangout, although it does attract a large biker crowd, especially on Sundays. And why not? Real motorcyclists eat quiche and exotic ravioli, especially when it's prepared this deftly. Although Cold Spring Tavern is pricier than the other places mentioned here, the tab is certainly reasonable considering the fare. Three of us recently spent about $13 apiece for a lovely lunch.
The wooded setting along an old stagecoach road is likewise a haven from the world of freeways and cookie-cutter chain restaurants.
Two-Wheel Ride surveys the motorcycle scene in Southern California. David Colker can be reached at email@example.com.