Seeing reports that a historical restoration project to give new life to the very vintage and weathered sign from a favorite local diner, long closed down in my little hometown of Lompoc, CA had finally come to fruition, my heart swelled with joy and I paused to consider why it was so meaningful to me.
Some of my earliest memories are of weekend family breakfast at the Lion’s Inn, a probably unremarkable diner attached to a motel just beyond the north edge of town, in what was at the time, a virtual No Man’s Land of not much but that motel, a dinky little airport, and a drive-in movie theater, marking the transition into and out of Lompoc for folks who commuted a few miles further out to the suburbs of Mission Hills, Vandenberg Village, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, excuse me, now Vandenberg *Space* Force Base (*rolls eyes*). Once you crossed the bridge over the river bed and passed the airport and drive-in, it was just beautiful rolling rural chaparral for several miles until you reached your destination outside downtown Lompoc. Turns out the unremarkable diner I remember was a Loop’s, attached to the Lion’s Inn Motor Hotel, tres 70s regal. We didn’t go there for the food, it was probably relatively unremarkable. We went there for Judy, a boisterous character of a lady that waited tables there, at your service with sparkling eyes, a huge grin, and a raucous sense of humor. So when Judy relocated to waiting tables in town, what was then still downtown and is now known as Old Town, or the South Side, since development crept steadily north over the years, eventually building a thriving economic hub on the north end of town, we followed her. I believe she bought the place, I didn’t know until recently that this new diner, Hi! LET’S EAT, had been around since the early 60s. The Lion’s Inn soon went away, making way for a bigger, newer, nicer hotel and a Sizzler, Marie Callender’s, and a number of other things in and around that location over the years. As a teenager, I still occasionally went to Hi’s as it was always known locally, usually with friends. At some point, Judy retired, I think her son took it over for a while, who I kind of knew by virtue of Lompoc being a small town and he ran in the same surfing community circles I did. I moved away after High School and at some point, it became a more accessible place to get a Jalama burger if you couldn’t make the drive all the way out to the famous shack that served them out at the beach of the same name. Jalama Cafe didn’t seem to make it long, and the place probably sat empty for a very long, sad time, all the while, that beautiful vintage Hi! Let’s Eat sign standing quiet vigil as many parts of Old Town Lompoc began to crumble and change in the wake of the economic shift north. And about 5 years ago, a Starbucks moved into that building, nearly a death sentence for our beloved vintage icon, for while the local businesses that passed through its adjacent building we’re happy to leave it up as a local landmark, it was not in line with Starbucks branding and was certainly doomed to demolition. The community rallied to save the sign, it literally took a whole village of folks 5 years and undoubtedly significant effort to save the historic sign, from the work of the historical society, finding it a home, the passionate efforts of the enthusiastic host for the sign, and restoring it’s paint and electrical to all the fundraising and logistical coordination and shared purpose required to keep the project moving. I want them to know that while leaving Lompoc after I graduated seemed like the only option, to satisfy that itch to get out and see the world, I am so proud of how my hometown has grown and changed in my absence, developing a flourishing arts scene that was really there all along, a wine culture, finally extending a scene that was thriving for decades literally in our backyard, the Santa Ynez Valley just 20 miles away, and a thriving foodie scene including food trucks, microbreweries, and a thriving coffee shop,,, Southside Coffee, something we didn’t really have as teenagers, our underage hangout locale, much to the dismay of it’s managers, was Baker’s Square, where we’d order endless cups of coffee and not much else, cause a ruckus as teenagers do, and occupy a table for hours on end. By the time I was a teenager, The American Host was the go-to greasy spoon for weekend comfort food, biscuits and gravy was my regular favorite, with friends, where you were certain to run into someone you know, it’s that kind of small town diner. In fact, I was more likely to be at Tom’s, the home of the educated hamburger, which I remember opening in a tiny storefront in a strip mall when I was still very small, A line extending out the door pretty much from day one, which it quickly outgrew and moved into a larger location where it is still thriving today, and I have never encountered any other place where I can select from a menu of hamburgers literally spanning the alphabet.It would become the Cajun Kitchen for me as a young adult in Santa Barbara, where all the local rock stars and hipsters gathered on Saturday and Sunday mornings for hangover breakfast, and where I had my first taste of eggs Benedict, California style with a slice of tomato under the egg instead of ham and sliced avocado hugging the top of those poached eggs and blanketed with silky hollandaise. I’ve tried many kinds of eggs Benedict at many places over the years, and none of them ever measured up to what they served at Cajun, it became my gold standard for the dish, and while I didn’t feel any more special than any of the other of those who thronged the place, there was always a wait list, the manager greeted me by name every time, even after I’d moved away and returned some time later for a visit—the people are as great as the food there. It’s weird seeing the Hi’s sign in front of the American Host, and I honestly couldn’t think of a better place to honor the memory of small town diners past. The community that made this sign restoration possible is at the very heart of the American diner culture and tradition it sought to preserve and honor here, the community is just as, if not more important than the menu.
If you’re a fan of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, Guy Fierri also recognized the fading of this great American food tradition and DDD is how he honors it, and thereby helped to revive a great piece of American food culture, showing us all that there’s a Hi’s, an American Host, a Tom’s, a Cajun Kitchen in all of our communities, a local tradition still going strong and thriving, perhaps in part due to many of these locations becoming tourist destinations after being featured, and 16 years later, Guy Fieri is still traveling America’s highways shining lights on these capsules of their local community and showing us all how much we have in common and celebrating the ways we are different.
Anthony Bourdain‘s cynicism and contempt for American corporate food culture was front and center in season 2 episode 6 of A Cook’s Tour, in which he visited the spectrum of Minneapolis’s food offerings, beginning with the dreaded Mall of America food court and ending on a more positive note highlighting local establishments, proclaiming, “good food should be a blue-collar thing,“ highlighting the contributions of immigrant cultures and showing how “American food“ can also be a beautiful thing. When he visited chain restaurants like Sizzler and Waffle House in Parts Unknown, for just a moment, I thought he’d lost his mind. It was in that moment that I really saw the genius of his work. Eschewing the far off locations only seen in person by less than half of Americans (The 36% of Americans who hold a passport) in favor of exploring the cuisine of the American heartland, it was then that I saw clear and sharp his search not just for good food, but the people, the communities, the human element that underlies it all and how it brings people together.
This event has given me pause to reflect that this particular intersection of food and community hasn’t been an integral part of my life since I ceased being a regular at Cajun. I’ve certainly sat down for diner food here and there, the occasional road trip stop at a Denny’s, a rare visit to one of the previously mentioned locations when reconnecting with an old friend, Break Your Fast in the strip mall around the corner from where I used to live in Union City. I don’t exactly live in a small town anymore, I live in a small town crowded together with lots of other small towns in the constellation of bigger cities like San Francisco (not actually big, just densely packed), Oakland, and San Jose all crowded together to form the 7 million strong 9 county Bay Area universe. My food and community intersection looks a lot more these days like private meals with good friends, in our homes or more often out at a wide variety of local eateries, the guy that owned and ran the great sandwich and salad cafe conveniently located on the ground floor of the building next door to where I used to work, making it a near daily routine, and more recently, being so regular and predictable heading into the student center at Laney College every Monday and Tuesday morning for a large black coffee, the friendly folks there usually have it ready for me by the time I get to the counter, along with warm greetings and friendly banter. There was definitely more than a little nostalgia tugging at my heart strings reflecting on this intersection of food and community in my life and how it changed over the years. It may or may not look like sitting down to American diner food, it may or may not be delivered by a Judy, and you may or may not see your hungover friends recovering from the show you all went to the night before. Savor the ways and moments in which food is not just food, it’s your community, because it almost always is, and the people are just as important as the menu.