BAKERSFIELD — A group of friends in baseball caps and streak-dyed hair parked their trucks and SUVs in a circle, hatches open, across the way from some swaying oil pumps, and about 200 yards from a party-people cantina called Chuy’s Mesquite Broiler. A light pole’s cement base served as a tabletop on which they balanced takeout chicken tacos, fruity cocktails in clear plastic to-go cups and oversized pale orange Mexican lagers.
This was a birthday party for Jessica, who declined to give her last name for fear of any backlash for drinking in a parking lot. But it was her 40th, and her commitment to the coronavirus lockdown had all but withered.
“Do I want to hang out by this light fixture on my birthday?” Jessica moaned. “No, I want to be hanging out with my friends and just come have a meal.”
It was mid-May, the height of the lockdown, and if restaurants were open, she would have partied the locals’ way. She would have had a big meal at Luigi’s, a beloved Italian institution open since 1910, then headed a few corners up to Pyrenees Cafe, a Basque watering hole and banquet-style restaurant circa 1899. “Then I’d take a Lyft home,” she said wistfully.
The parking lot outside Chuy’s, her favorite sunny-weather hangout, was the next best thing.
The restaurant’s manager warned them that they had to disperse but didn’t give the impression she expected them to. Tolerance for the lockdown among skeptics in counties with relatively low infection and mortality rates for COVID-19 — such as Kern, where Bakersfield is the county seat — had grown thin. In addition, Sheriff Donny Youngblood had said publicly he wouldn’t enforce the measures, part of a flurry of passively or openly rebellious activity in the Central Valley against the mandates from Sacramento.
Diners in this unheralded food city at this point were just finding a way.
“It’s a serious disease, I get that. For two months I did the lockdown,” continued Jessica, in a blue L.A. Dodgers cap slightly bleached by the sun. “I’m a baseball fan. I understand not having baseball, but not opening that patio?” — she asked, pointing to the restaurant’s highway-facing deck — “I personally don’t understand that.”
Chuy’s was among a handful of restaurants that swung open their doors a few days earlier, over confusion and exasperation with the whiplash-inducing rules. When officials threatened to pull their licenses or permits, the restaurants closed and waited for the official all-clear.
Two weeks before Gov. Gavin Newsom would allow Los Angeles County restaurants to open, I was desperate for a meal with strangers — part of what brought me to Bakersfield in the first place. So I accepted an invitation to join Jessica and her friends. I walked across the baking asphalt and ordered the Thursday special, a tri-tip sandwich with pepper jack cheese, and sweet potato fries to-go, on the manager’s recommendation. For a to-go drink, I asked for the first cocktail I saw, a Baja on the Rocks (“It’s a rum thing.”).
I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting much. But the tri-tip wasn’t chewy or dry, and the roll it came in was decent. The chips and salsa packed alongside the sandwich were better than ordinary, dusted with a seasoning I couldn’t place beyond the aroma of Lawry’s powder. The salsa was fresh, not watery. Jessica and her friends nodded at me like, “It’s good, right?”
They insisted that Bakersfield was “cool,” with “a lot of things going on,” and, after an hour and a half of hanging out and eating, I was prepared to start believing them. If Chuy’s — an Americanized Mexican chain cantina — had good food in the middle of a global pandemic, then maybe any place in this town could have good food.
Yet I wasn’t totally naive about the prospects ahead.
From reading Jonathan Gold and watching Huell Howser, I knew that Kern County was home to a rich community of people whose origins lay in the Basque country, the region-without-a-republic between Spain and France. Immigrant sheepherders arrived in the south San Joaquin Valley around the 1870s and brought along the Basque manner of making restaurants, where you sit down and eat family-style, shoulder to shoulder, to enjoy a parade of dishes such as pickled tongue and oxtail stew, and endless bottles of red wine.
Before the shutdown, the best-regarded local bastions of family-style Basque dining in Bakersfield included the Pyrenees, Wool Growers, Benji’s and the Noriega Hotel, this last one considered the best in town. Unfortunately, by the time I showed up, the pandemic had forced the Noriega to close forever.
A civic symbol lost and a communal experience at risk
“Bakersfield does have a very rich and diverse food history,” said county Supervisor Mike Maggard. “There are many very long-standing successful family restaurants here; they represent a range of culinary genres.”
Indeed, every other dine-in spot seems to be owned by a generational family, be they Italian, Basque, American or Mexican. It probably doesn’t hurt that the city is also a major center of agriculture.
The lockdown implemented by Gov. Newsom in mid-March posed an economic threat to all restaurants — according to one dire estimate by the California Restaurant Assn., as many as 30,000 restaurants across the state may close for good — and an existential threat to dining culture at large.
But in Bakersfield, the loss of the Noriega Hotel came as an especially painful shock.
Founded in 1893 and operated by the Elizalde family since 1931, the Noriega was the oldest surviving Basque kitchen and inn for male boarders in the United States, according to “The Basques of Kern County,” a detailed 2012 history by Stephen Bass and George Ansolabehere. The Noriega banquet room was famous for its nightly single seating at long, family-style tables and a fixed menu that changed daily.
The restaurant, which won a James Beard American Classics award in 2011, was a civic symbol, said Robert Price, a columnist and former executive editor of the Bakersfield Californian newspaper. “It just felt so 1880 in there, like you’re walking into ancient Spain. The Basque tradition — and I mean the sort of American-California Basque tradition — is certainly world-class,” Price said.
On April 24, the Elizaldes announced via Facebook that their establishment would not reopen after the lockdown. A shudder flew through the tight-knit Basque diaspora in Kern County.
Today the building on Sumner Street, across from the old Kern train depot, is a silent, ghostly sight. A fading open-air court attached to one side, for the traditional sport of pelota, sits empty.
After Noriega’s closure, Price said the community is grappling with the prospect of “the end of the long-table communal dining experience” in Kern County. That is, unless the few remaining restaurants can find a way to carry the tradition through a post-lockdown new normal.
Longing for family
Wool Growers on East 19th Street sits on an arid block, a cement building with practically no windows facing the outside.
It has a classic neon sign and is decorated inside with floral wallpaper and paintings showing the old country. In a hallway between dining rooms, dozens of photographs documenting the past century of local Basque migration adorn the walls. Names of newcomers like Chevalier, Mendiburu, Yribarren and Etchenique echo forward from a century ago.
“It’s just a weird time,” said Christiane Camou, who co-owns the restaurant with her mother, Jenny Poncetta, and grandmother Mayie Maitia, its founder. “There’s really no way of us doing our style of dining and only having one plate served.”
She stood in the entry room bar of the restaurant Maitia opened in 1954. In the early days, Camou said, her grandmother benefited from spillover at the Noriega and gradually grew her own base of regulars. On a recent Thursday, Wool Growers was back in business, offering takeout only, after having been shuttered for weeks.
In the empty dining room, Camou set out some of the restaurant’s California-Basque house favorites to be photographed (I couldn’t resist taking a few nibbles): shrimp scampi, tomato salad, fried chicken and pickled tongue, which was exceptionally tender and savory. Bartender Sabrina Fowler, mixing a house classic, the Picon Punch, said she sorely missed her regulars.
New regulations require that restaurant interiors be reconfigured to allow at least six feet of physical distance between patrons at all times. Camou said she was aware of how tough the road ahead might be.
“We’re going to screen people as they make reservations. They really want it to be households coming,” she said of the regulations. “So it’s going to be a little difficult for a hostess or me to say, ‘Do you all live in the same house?’
“They’re very anxious to come in and eat in the dining room,” Camou said of her regulars. “Part of having that basic family-style meal is the social part of it. You can take it home and eat it, and it’s not quite the same.”
Memorial Day weekend would have been the 48th annual Basque festival in Bakersfield. This year it was canceled. (Members of the Basque community instead posted videos of traditional dancing in their driveways on the Facebook page of the local Basque Club.)
Also canceled was the customary Memorial Day Monday breakfast at Wool Growers, when the restaurant feeds more than 1,000 people in one big hangover banquet, Camou said.
It is the only day out of the entire year that Wool Growers is open for breakfast. And while it didn’t happen this year, Tuesday brought some measure of hope as Wool Growers started dine-in service again.
“It’s been a confusing time,” said Matt Constantine, the public health director of Kern County. “We’ve been trying to keep up with the governor’s stay-at-home order, the stages and the phases within the stages. It’s been confusing to navigate these orders and guidelines, and it’s been confusing to our local businesses too.”
Kern County will have to move forward without letting its guard down, Constantine cautioned. As of May 29, the county had 37 deaths related to coronavirus and more than 2,000 cases.
Later in the week, Poncetta, Camou’s mother, said reservation calls have been increasing since reopening. With masks on all staff members and a modicum of distancing from the bar to the table, a form of family-style Basque eating was back.
“We are asking people as they come in if they’re comfortable with family-style or if they want it to be individual, and so far we haven’t had one say they want it to be individual,” Poncetta said on Thursday. “They want family-style because that’s why they come to the Basque restaurant. And they are mostly just families coming together. But so far, they’re OK with that.”
Coffee shop pancakes as restaurants reopen
Rick Mossman was 1 year old when his grandmother opened Mossman’s coffee shop next to a bowling alley in the Westchester neighborhood north of downtown Bakersfield. His own daughter was 1 when he took over the family business, a now-three-generation enterprise that relies heavily on its catering arm. When the pandemic hit, Mossman said, he fielded dozens of calls from would-be brides who were canceling weddings.
“I think we’re definitely ready to come back to normal,” Mossman said. “I’m not sure you’re ever going to create a sick-free world, you know, so what are we going to do?”
He was also at least partly responsible for that brief insurrection in Bakersfield against the dining closures in early May, buoyed by a confusing, late-in-the-week motion approved by the Kern County Board of Supervisors.
After the stop-and-start, he officially reopened for dine-in service on May 22 at 6 a.m., with all the new restrictions and guidelines in place.
I dropped in that morning because, although Mossman’s is well known for its fish and chips, it’s also pretty handy in the Bakersfield breakfast eater’s back pocket for its pancakes.
I took a seat at the counter, distanced from the other seats by gray masking tape and printed signs. I kept my mask on until my plate arrived. The meal, in any other circumstances, was extremely typical: a simple American breakfast of pancakes, bacon and eggs.
But this is the year of pandemic, and this was the first sit-down restaurant meal I’d had anywhere since just before midnight on March 15, when the countywide order went into effect in Los Angeles. Nearly 10 full weeks later, on the morning of May 22, I sought meaning in my breakfast.
This place could more or less be anywhere in California, with its gray counter, swiveling chairs and rounded booths facing large, single-pane windows. I swiveled around to take in the scene. Little by little, diners were coming in: masks on until they were seated, every other booth or every other counter spot taped off, all staff and servers masked.
It wasn’t like the Before Times, but it was close enough. The pancakes came with two strips of crispy brown bacon, flattop scrambled eggs and disposable cups of creamed butter and syrup. “We make the syrup here,” said Susan Alvidrez, a longtime server. “Also the whipped cream.”
I inhaled the pancakes, and they were legit, toasty on top and fluffy beneath. Everything was great, though I pondered the possibility that maybe all of it tasted better because it was food made in the spirit of hospitality.
The Carranza family worked on the McGrath Family Farm for more than 20 years. Just as they sought to go into the strawberry business on their own, the coronavirus hit.
“These are the best pancakes in town,” said Jesse Patino, who owns a taqueria called Super Taco. He was finishing his own short stack in a booth with Melissa Puryear.
“We did pancakes for takeout, but it just doesn’t capture the flavor as much,” Puryear said. “It might be a placebo effect thing. When you come in to the restaurant, you sit down, you take in the environment, the people here.”
That same day, all across town, other dining rooms were slowly reopening. At Luigi’s, fourth-generation owner Gino Valpredo reopened with a full house — well, 50% less packed, per new measures, but full.
The walls inside of Luigi’s are crowded to the ceiling with historic newspaper photographs of Kern County athletic icons and sports teams. Valpredo said he had 40 people on payroll that Friday, all with new duties and roles. “We have someone that refills drinks, someone that cleans tables and someone that sanitizes.”
The restaurateur admitted that at 50% capacity, he can’t imagine being able to sustain the business as is for an extended period. “But we have to-go and we have the deli,” and the response on Day 1 of their return, he added, had been “unbelievable.”
Paletas for dessert
Later in the day, when lunchtime rolled around, I stopped for a quick plate of shrimp tacos at Los Tacos de Huicho, a Mexican staple, where I also nursed a michelada on the patio, in silence, for as long as I could. By late afternoon, I decided I couldn’t leave Bakersfield without dessert. So, on a tip from Bakersfield native Emma Gallegos, I headed to the east side of town, to a place in an alleyway behind a corner liquor store that I was told sold the finest Mexican-style fruit pops.
Like other establishments in Bakersfield, La Rosa Fruit Bars & Ice Creams has been owned by the same family for decades. Today it is operated by Norma Diaz. Her parents founded La Rosa in 1980. She sells classic paletas, as well as more modern ones, in such flavors as avocado dipped in chocolate or pineapple with Tajín, which had a nice kick for the springtime sun.
Diaz said her orders for big events and parties have fallen because of the pandemic but that Bakersfield is a place that is proud of its local food businesses and will do whatever it takes to sustain them.
“I think we’re handling it awesomely. Everybody has been careful and respectful of everybody else, and that’s why they let us open, with restrictions, but I think everybody was ready for that,” Diaz said. “We’ll see what happens, what they allow us to do.”
She said lots of places she loved were back in business, ticking off names of some eateries I’d already visited. “Makes me want to go out tonight somewhere,” Diaz said confidently. “Ready.”