I've been writing about restaurants in this town since 1980, and even I can't recall how many different restaurants have resided in the building at 4102 California Ave. I can recall the Coachlight Inn West opening there, doing well, then dying. Before I moved here 33 years ago, I believe it was a Senor Jose's and a Love's, and along the way I remember Fuddruckers, Fresh Choice, California Choice, Tony Roma's, Five Star buffet and many other establishments whose names have slipped away with time.
It got to be such a revolving door that in one of my columns in the '80s, I called it the Bermuda Triangle of restaurant locations. That term stuck because it has an element of truth, though I've since reconsidered it: The Bermuda Triangle is much safer.
Reader Craig Holland, whose first "real job" was working for caterer Dick Mossman back in 1965, said his boss told him no restaurant "would ever be successful (at that location) because the parking lot is on the wrong side of the building. By the time you see how crowded the parking lot is, you are past the building. He said people decide to stop or not stop based on how full the parking lot is, if they haven't already decided where they want to eat."
Not to be deterred by history is Black Bear Diner, a very successful coffee shop chain (58 locations in nine Western states) that I have enjoyed in my travels in the past. But will the latest restaurant to put out the "Open" sign have what it takes to break the long-standing curse?
I think they've got a shot, not because they have dazzling cuisine (that consideration has been pretty irrelevant in the past) but because the diner has the solid home-cooked fare that usually does well in Bakersfield: pot roast, meat loaf, pecan-encrusted trout (my personal favorite from the menu) at prices that won't empty the pocketbook -- similar to chains like Coco's and Marie Callender's.
My experience with this chain over the years is that you'll either love or hate the choices, but everyone can find something they like. Take the sweet cream pancakes ($6.99). They're made with both buttermilk and sweet cream. Some find the combination too rich. Others say, "I'd like seconds." The mashed potatoes, with bits of red skin in them, are just solid, good ol' country boy food.
But the gravies leave me cold. When we had dinner there, our waitress asked if I wanted country gravy, turkey gravy or "brown" gravy. Yes, I know we live in an era when colors have become flavors ("I'll take some blue Gatorade!"), but that brown gravy has such an indistinct flavor it's hardly worth the calories, and the potatoes are rich enough by themselves. The country gravy is similarly charmless.
What does have appeal is the pot roast ($11.99), which is the old-fashioned type cooked in the oven for eight hours with carrots, onions and celery. With a browned edge and a juicy, beefy full-flavored taste, you can't get this American staple just anywhere anymore. The meat also is available in a sandwich, called a pot roast melt ($9.99), with grilled mushrooms and onions, pepper jack cheese, all on sourdough bread (I'd skip the unnecessary green chili mayo that comes on it). If you like beef, order it either way.
I also like the "housemade" meatloaf ($11.99), which my companion thought was a tad salty. I like it because it's made from beef and "special recipe ground sausage" (which I read as pork) and has all sorts of other visible ingredients, including barley and the smallest bits of carrot and onion. This is a soft, crumbly, flavorful meatloaf you can imagine coming out of the kitchen of some Midwestern mother. (Ask for the brown gravy on the side and use it to threaten nearby small children who won't behave. It works.)
Other interesting choices include the rustic ravioli ($10.49), stuffed with beef, Parmesan and ricotta cheeses and then topped with a marinara sauce made from leftover meatloaf. Sounds odd, but it works.
Can't say the same for one of their other "can't get anywhere else" specialties, the bacon-stuffed chicken ($13.99), which features two thin skinless chicken breasts stuffed with a chopped mixture of bacon, broccoli and cheese, crowned by a dull Hollandaise. It's hard to imagine bacon, cheese and chicken not working out, but this seems like demented cafeteria food. Avoid, shun, dodge. The bacon is put to far better use in the bacon ranch dressing, which you should try on your salad; some people come here just for that.
A friend swears the berry pies and cobblers are excellent, but we ended up ordering the hot "Mount Shasta" chocolate lava cake ($5.99), admirable mostly for the hard crust on top.
My companion noted the ice cream, cake and fudge all had a cheap, generic quality, but you could hardly beat the combination of the ingredients. We didn't finish it (it's big) but it wasn't easy to put the forks down either.
I have to give the chain props for having a section of the menu called "Little Less." It's an option available at all three meals and it's perfect for folks who find restaurant portions too generous but who can't or don't want to take leftovers home. It's a nice, customer-friendly option.
Service was great, in large part because many experienced Black Bear employees were imported to Bakersfield from cities like Modesto to train the locals. The vets were wearing polo shirts, our waitress explained, while the local new hires were dressed in the regular Black Bear clothes.
It really helped smooth over that typical "new restaurant" clunkiness that happens.
And since Bakersfield is famous for giving big bear hugs to new restaurants, the diner has been crowded since opening earlier this month, though the competent servers seemed to get folks through at a brisk pace. Waits weren't as long as we anticipated.
I did note that management arranged to have a refrigerated Sysco truck behind the restaurant to make sure they didn't run out of food. They must have heard that local legend about new places running out of food, even if they weren't hip to the building's reputation.
Do you have a tip, question or recommendation on Bakersfield restaurants, trends or food news in general? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org