A 100-mile plus mile drive from Los Angeles will take you to Santa Barbara. It will also take you to Encinitas, or Big Bear Lake. Or it can take you to Bakersfield. And why should it do that, you ask? Even for 24 hours?
Because under the rugged surface, it contains enough attractions and surprises to easily fill 24 hours. Despite its having 364,000 people, Bako, as it is locally known, is one of the Golden State’s most avoided places. Its commonplace superlatives are dubious: the most obese, the most conservative, the least college-educated population. The air quality is below L.A.'s.
(Buck Owens in the early years. Image: BuckOwens.com)
On the other hand, it’s got its own worldwide country sound, courtesy of the likes of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, who left us his landmark Crystal Palace, the only combination museum, dance hall and restaurant I can think of anywhere. There is the county museum, which features acres of real life-displays of the area's agricultural and oil-drilling history. It has a sizable community college and a CSU campus, which provide some cultural underpinnings. It has several famous Basque restaurants — like the James Beard-awarded Noriega Hotel — that feed you fiercely.
But even if you skip these, you can get right to the heart of the city via bus from downtown L.A., which at this time of year passes through the Grapevine at its green spring finest. (Trust me, the trip is much more enjoyable when you aren’t driving.) And have an enjoyable, fulfilling day’s stay on foot.
You can also check into the nicest hotel in town a block or two away from the bus station. This is the Padre, an eight-story 1928 hostelry, recently restored in slightly odd deco-steampunk style within walking distance from some art galleries, antique shops, restaurants and two singular museums you've never heard of.
Plus a great music store, a formidable-looking steampunk department store and several tattoo parlors. What is called the downtown arts district seems to be growing, but it still has a ways to go. But there are a number of expansive restos around the Padre, along with a serious-looking club scene that seemed to switch on around our bedtime, so we didn’t sample it.
We picked Mama Roomba (1814 Eye Street) for late lunch purely because of its colorful exterior. Inside, it’s like an old Caribbean café with a South American menu. Peruvian ceviche and Chilean ground beef empanadas were perfect and our salad was the most beautiful thing we'd seen in the city. An impressive variety of wine was on hand. Service was indulgent, prompt and friendly. “Take your time,” our server told us. “We don’t close until 9:45 p.m.”
Uricchio’s Trattoria (1400 17th Street) is big and generally crowded, but, even minus a reservation, we didn't have to wait at 7 p.m. Thursday. No spa cuisine here. There were tables of as many as 20 people, chowing down on lasagna, spaghetti Alfredo, cannelloni, manicotti — recalling that local obesity statistic. Despite the crowd, our server was pleasant and fast. West L.A. prices, but the portions were larger.
The wine list, on the other hand, had some premium selections at bottom-level prices. I had the manicotti marinara, my wife the chicken piccata. The portions were so big we were sure that we’d take something home, but were so excellent that we finished every little bit. The house sourdough bread was good too. We skipped dessert and resolved to take it easy on breakfast.
The Padre Hotel has a handful of eating and drinking places, including a bar that was hosting “PaintNite,” a hard-drinking watercolor class that convened the evening of our arrival. Dozens of aspiring painters clutched wine glasses and brushes as they copied a Van Gogh starscape off a vast flat-screen monitor. Other Padre offerings include the relatively costly Belvedere Room restaurant, fancy enough for Beverly Hills.
But we breakfasted at the Brimstone Bar, whose only satanic detail was a red-felt pool table. I had a somewhat bland rendition of huevos rancheros with an excellent side order of roasted potatoes, my wife a big bowl of oatmeal with a few strawberries and, by request, a lot of walnuts and soy milk. With good coffee, the whole thing came to about $20 with tip. Then we were off in time for the opening of the Buena Vista Natural History Museum, then the Bakersfield Museum of Art, a last stroll in the park and then over the greening mountains towards home.
Check out the rest of Marc's "Bakersfield Confidential" and plan your own trip to Kern County.