Recently, it was Wool Growers for dinner. I assume most people in town have been to Wool Growers, but given that it is perched on East 19th Street, the East part may scare some off. If “East” deters, then they might be unfamiliar with the bustling hub of restaurants in east Bakersfield that are east of Union, south of Sumner and north of Truxtun.
Funny because we make such a big deal about location and some of the busiest restaurants are a stone’s throw from the Bakersfield Rescue Mission, empty lots, halfway houses, sheet metal shops, paint stores, Affordable Furniture and buildings that have been boarded up for years. So much for conventional wisdom.
If the food is good, if a restaurant is lively and it has a sense of place, it can be on the moon and people will board rocket ships to get there.
That said, Wool Growers has a security guard in the parking lot — a kindness — and most customers enter through the parking lot entrance on the west side of the building.
Both lots were jammed, as they often are, a marvel in itself, and when we stepped into the entrance closest to the back bar, the place was packed. Overflowing with people glad to be out on a Friday night and Wool Growers was just the ticket.
JC, who looks he could be a leading man in Basque cinema, was minding the back bar. JC seems ageless and as much a part of the furniture as the plump lamb on the green neon sign out front.
We sat down at a table close to the bar and watched people, faces aglow, as they came in the restaurant in waves. Waves with human faces leaning toward the Wool Growerian shore.
The thing that struck me was the number of younger people, couples in their 30s, couples with kids and young people with their parents.
It was clear they were not first-timers. They’d come as kids. Been there as parents. Some were returning as grandparents.
Although they could go to restaurants in fancier neighborhoods, neighborhoods in which many of them have moved, they’ve returned to their childhoods, restaurant roots and familiar haunts.
There is something comforting about that kind of loyalty. Something timeless. Something Bakersfield.
Maybe this happens everywhere. I don’t know. Rapid-fire change and disruption are the currency of business today and the opposite of what makes a Wool Growers and its ilk successful.
This is the good in Bakersfield. Not the only thing, but one thing. We hang around. So do our kids and if they don’t, and sometimes there isn’t a job to hang around for, then they come back and go to the old places.
Those of us who do hang around usually find friends, neighborhoods and a common cultural experience:
Have you been, is it the same, do they still serve?
The answer is yes.
We stayed at Wool Growers for two hours. Two, maybe three. Why leave? This felt like home.